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U.N., Lawmakers Urged to Curb Forced Marriages

Monday, February 25, 2008

Over 51 million girls under 18 in the developing world are forced to marry, a practice widely viewed as a violation of their human rights. U.S. advocates are now flagging congressional bills to help curb the practice.

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Over 51 million girls under 18 in the developing world are forced to marry, a practice widely viewed as a violation of their human rights. U.S. advocates are now flagging congressional bills to help curb the practice.
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Stephanie Sinclair

(WOMENSENEWS)--After gaining legislative backers in July, opponents of forced early marriage are now forcing the issue into a higher profile.

Today the International Center for Research on Women is launching a week of action, encouraging the public to lobby their representatives via letters and phone calls to support bills to fund programs to help curb the practice.

Stephanie Sinclair, winner of the UNICEF Photo of the Year award in 2007, will also see her photo exhibit of child brides in Afghanistan go up in the foyer at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill today. Her winning portrait featured Mohammed, 40, and his bride Ghulam, 11.

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The efforts are coinciding with the opening of the 2008 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which will include on its agenda a report on the forced marriage of child brides by the secretary-general.

Nearly half of the 331 million girls in developing countries are expected to marry by their 20th birthday; 1 in 7 girls marry before the age of 15, according to the Population Council, an international research group based in New York.

If the current trend continues, the council estimates 100 million more girls--25,000 every day--will become child brides in the next decade.

Groups including the Population Council and the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington-based research group founded in 1976, have been publishing this type of research and flogging reform efforts for 10 years or more.

But recent research--showing how child marriage hinders U.S. aid and spotlighting some effective programs--helped stir more attention in 2007.

Two Bills in Congress

In July, Rep. Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota and member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, introduced the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act. Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, soon followed in August with the International Child Marriage Prevention and Protection Act.

Currently, 45 legislators are supporting child marriage bills. In the House, McCollum's bill waits for two more co-sponsors to sign on for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to consider taking up the legislation. Lawmakers would be more willing to co-sponsor the bill if they heard from constituents, according to the International Center for Research on Women, which is one aim of the group's week-long lobbying effort.

Child marriage was a major issue raised by the 2007 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women when it met a year ago. A U.S. resolution to reduce the practice was passed, encouraging countries to take action. A follow-up report to the resolution was released in December and identified the issue as part of the commission's 2008 agenda.

In addition to studies from the International Center for Research on Women, the congressional bills are also based on research and statistics from organizations including the Population Council and UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

Both bills would target funding to countries where the United States currently provides aid. The House bill asks for $100 million over a four-year period; the Senate version asks for $60 million over a three-year period.

Targeting Influence

"These are countries that we have influence on and we're working with," said Bill Harper, McCollum's chief of staff who has worked closely with the House bill.

Advocates for programs to curb forced early marriage say they are sensitive to charges of cultural hegemony on an issue such as this, which involves longstanding traditions.

"A lot of what the legislation is about is not dictating and telling people what they have to do," said Harper, McCollum's chief of staff. "It's taking model projects and model interventions, investing in them and allowing them to be expanded in more areas."

One model is offered by Tostan, a group based in the West African nation of Senegal. Tostan has been implementing its community empowerment program in nine African countries during the past 16 years.

Instead of targeting child marriage, Tostan programs try to educate communities about their rights in their own languages. While often sustained by local custom, child marriage frequently violates a country's own constitution or laws.

Studies from the International Center for Research on Women show that 12 of the 20 countries with the highest rate of child marriage have an established legal age of marriage for girls at 18 or higher. (See chart.)

20 Countries With Highest Rates of Child Marriage
Ranking Country Minimum Legal Age of Marriage for Girls Amount of USAID Child and Maternal Health Funding in 2006
1 Niger 15 none
2 Chad 15 none
3 Bangladesh 18 $2.6 million
4 Mali 18 $16.5 million
5 Guinea 17 $6.7 million
6 Central African Republic 18 not available
7 Nepal 18 $18.6 million
8 Mozambique 18 $17.3 million
9 Uganda 18 $19.9 million
10 Burkina Faso 19 none
11 India 18 $47.7 million
12 Ethiopia 18 $31.6 million
13 Liberia 15 $3.2 million
14 Yemen 15 none
15 Cameroon 15 not available
16 Eritrea 18 not available
17 Malawi 18 $21.1 million
18 Nicaragua 18 $7.7 million
19 Nigeria not available $21.5 million
20 Zambia no minimum $16.1 million

Credit: Data from ICRW, UNICEF, USAID.

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A hallmark of Tostan's community empowerment programs is cultural deference, said Gannon Gillespie, director of U.S. operations for Tostan. "We are not an organization coming in and telling communities what to do," he said. "Every community has its own history, priorities and timeline for change. If you start trying to force things, then you're really going down the wrong path, because this only invites more resistance, instead of finding a common way forward."

3,000 Public Declarations

Since 1991, Tostan's programs have led almost 3,000 communities in West Africa to make public declarations against child marriage and female genital mutilation.

In 2004, the Population Council's Frontiers in Reproductive Health program conducted an evaluation of Tostan's program in Senegal and found participants considerably increased their awareness of human rights, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and reproductive health.

In 20 villages evaluators interviewed women and men before and after the program. They scored women's awareness as having risen by 83 percentage points, men's by 51 percentage points. That same level was observed one year later.

While Tostan receives hundreds of requests from communities for programs, it cannot fulfill them all.

Molly Melching, founder and executive director of Tostan, says more funding would make a significant difference in reaching out to more communities.

For one village, $12,000 covers the 30-month program, including training in democracy, human rights, problem solving, hygiene and health, literacy, math and management skills.

The Population Council has been conducting and evaluating child-marriage programs for over eight years and found they are most successful in communities with high rates of the practice where it is linked to poverty, poor health and the spread of HIV, said Judith Bruce, senior associate of the Poverty, Gender and Youth Program for the Population Council.

The council has implemented its own programs in five of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria.

Pointing to the strong tendency for early marriage to end girls' education and the economic incentives, such as dowries, that marrying a child can bring, the council's project in Amhara, Ethiopia, provides families with incentives to keep girls in programs and schooling. For example, a family of a girl who completes between 18 and 24 months of regular participation in the program receives a one-time gift of a sheep.

After the first six months of the program in 2004, the council found 88 percent of parents of unmarried girls said if the program had not been available to them, they would have married off their daughters.

In 2006, Population Council researchers found significantly fewer girls had been married during early adolescence and less than 1 percent of girls dropped out of the program.

Jill Hindenach is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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For more information:

UNICEF, 2007 Photo of the Year, online exhibit:
http://www.unicef.de/foto/2007/english/index.htm

International Center for Research on Women:
http://www.icrw.org/

Population Council:
http://www.popcouncil.org/ta/mar.html

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