Under current trends, experts predict that, by 2020, some fifty million girls will be married before they reach their fifteenth birthdays. In a CFR.org video today, which you can view above or on YouTube, I explain three things to know about the practice of child marriage and why it matters to U.S. foreign policy.
First, child marriage is far more prevalent than most people realize. The number of women married as children is staggering: the United Nations estimates that one in three women aged twenty to twenty-four—about 70 million—was married under the age of eighteen. Many of these women are far younger than eighteen at the time of their marriage: nearly five million girls are married under the age of fifteen every year, or about thirteen thousand per day. Some are married as young as eight or nine years old. This practice occurs across regions, cultures, and religions: India accounts for forty percent of the world’s known child brides, and this tradition is also pervasive elsewhere in South Asia, across Sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of Latin America and the Middle East.
The second thing to know about child marriage is that ending this practice is not just a moral imperative—it is a strategic imperative. Child marriage is undoubtedly a violation of human rights: it truncates girls’ education, robs them of their economic potential, endangers their health, and exposes them to sexual violence and abuse. But child marriage also matters because it undermines U.S. interests in development, prosperity, and stability. Consider, for example, the effect of this practice on economic growth: research suggests that child marriage curtails education for young girls, which has been shown to stifle economic progress. Instability is also associated with child marriage: one analysis found that most of the twenty-five countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are either fragile states or at high risk of natural disaster. Yet perpetuation of this practice in weak states only exacerbates poverty and instability in places already overwhelmed by complex challenges.
The third thing to know about child marriage is that lawmakers recently elevated this issue on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. In March, Congress enacted a provision in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that requires the Secretary of State to develop a U.S. strategy to combat child marriage. As the Obama Administration and Congress work together to develop and fund this strategy in a time of fiscal austerity, policymakers would do well to remember that the success of U.S. efforts to foster development, prosperity, and stability will grow if this persistent practice comes to an end.