This week the US Senate unanimously passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, the first piece of legislation endorsed by the US government to address child marriage. Sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the law seeks to strengthen the US government’s role in preventing child marriage, expanding investments to empower young girls, and include child marriage in the State Department annual Human Rights Report.
In countries where child marriage is practiced, a girl rarely has involvement in the process and could marry a man up to two to three times her own age. While most countries have set the minimum legal age for marriage at 18, more than 100 million girls under 18 are expected to marry within the next decade.
Child marriage is not only a human rights issue, but a critical health issue as well. Girls married as young as 8 years old have little knowledge of sexuality, reproduction, and the risk of HIV. After marriage, they enter a sexual relationship with husbands who may have already been sexually active. Girls married early often experience pressure from their communities to bear children at the beginning of their marriages, putting them at risk for obstructed labor during delivery or obstetric fistula post-partum. In developing countries, girls aged 10-14 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women age 20-24.
If the law passes in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate, the US will start to invest in various interventions that could delay early marriage and empower women. These programs could include education initiatives that help girls stay in school. Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to be married as children than girls with little or no education.