Make Combating Child Marriage a U.S. Foreign Policy Priority

When it comes to marriage, girls shouldn't be the ones taking vows. You and I should. On the first-ever International Day of the Girl, let's vow to end child marriage together.
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Two years ago, on a maternal health fact-finding mission in Ethiopia, I went to a place where you can find dozens of girls who were forced to marry. It was a hospital.

Founded in 1974, the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa treats girls and women for the horrible condition known as fistula, the rupture of the wall that separates the birth canal from the lower intestine. As hospital co-founder Dr. Catherine Hamlin explained, fistula is especially common among girls who get pregnant before their bodies have fully matured. After developing fistulas, they are often viewed as unclean and shunned. It broke my heart to hear the stories of girls and women abandoned by the very husbands they never asked for, and by the same families that had forced them into an early marriage.

On Oct. 11, as the world marks the first International Day of the Girl, I challenge all of us -- our policy makers and everyday citizens -- to take a stand against child marriage and make eliminating child marriage a foreign policy goal. It is a practice whose negative effects ripple through entire communities. And until they stop marrying off their futures, these societies will never reach their full potential. Likewise, until it tackles child marriage, the U.S. government will never achieve its development goals.

But how can we do this? UNICEF estimates that, in 2007, 60 million women aged 20-24 were married before they were 18. There are enormous swathes of Latin America, Asia and Africa where 18 year-old girls are far more likely to have husbands and children than diplomas.

Ethiopia is one of those countries. As many as half of Ethiopia's girls become wives before becoming adults. But Ethiopia is also a place where lasting solutions to child marriage are starting to make a difference.

Earlier this year, the villagers of Checheho Kebele made preparations for a grand wedding. Sosina Zewdu, a 14-year-old in the 8th grade, was to be married to a much older man. Her family bought food, drink, gifts, and prepared a dowry. Sosina had no idea what her family was planning until they took her to a clinic for a mandatory pre-marital HIV test.

Once she realized what was planned, Sosina immediately objected. All of her relatives were upset; all except her father, Abera. Unbeknownst to Sosina, he had been uneasy about her pending marriage since CARE and our partners helped educate him about the grim consequences of child marriage. For one, girls who deliver babies at 15 and younger are five times more likely to die during labor than women in their 20's. So when Sosina spoke up, Abera found the courage to do the same. As Abera told us, "If I am not going to respect my own daughter's rights and be a model of change in my community, who will?"

Instead of having a wedding, Abera used the food and drink to throw a party for his neighbors. And he set aside the dowry money so Sosina could afford to stay in school.

CARE and our partner organizations have found that one of the most effective ways of stopping child marriage is to tap into a parent's love for their child. When parents learn about the consequences of child marriage, they're far less likely to push their children into it.

Ethiopia's government is doing a commendable job of working closely with donors and humanitarian organizations to educate parents about child marriage, and to support organizations like the Hamlin Fistula Hospital. But education and advocacy are only part of the solution. The fact is, governments wouldn't need to devote so many resources to responding to the consequences of early marriage if the girls were never married in the first place.

Early marriage is most prevalent in communities suffering deep, chronic poverty. Governments, aid organizations and donors need to deepen their understanding of the link between poverty and early marriage through better data gathering and analysis. We also need to work together with community-based organizations to support efforts that empower adolescent girls with access to social and health services, as well as knowledge of their own human rights.

When it comes to marriage, girls shouldn't be the ones taking vows. You and I should. On the first-ever International Day of the Girl, let's vow to end child marriage together.

Dr. Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of CARE, a humanitarian organization that fights global poverty by empowering girls and women. Click here to get involved with CARE's campaign to end child marriage.

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