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Poverty, Illiteracy, and Child Marriage

Poverty, Illiteracy, and Child Marriage: A U.S. Response

Charlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Remarks at a Forum on Child Marriage in Developing Countries
Washington, DC
September 14, 2005


I am honored to have the opportunity to take part in this public forum to help shed light on the complex and sensitive issue of child marriage -- an issue for which the very definition is still under debate. For that reason, I will use the terms "early marriage" as well as "forced marriage" in my remarks. I hope that together we can identify concrete steps the international community might take to reduce the prevalence of this devastating practice, which deprives women and young girls of their dignity and human rights.

I want to commend Cherreka Montgomery of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) for spearheading this forum, and for her passion and admirable dedication to the issue.

I am pleased to join this distinguished group of women leaders on the panel who bring a wealth of expertise to help us analyze the myriad angles of this human rights and development challenge.

I welcome Karin Landgren, Chief of Child Protection from UNICEF; Winifred Mwebesa, Family Planning and Reproductive Health Advisor from Save the Children; and Geeta Rao Gupta President, International Center for Research on Women.

I am looking forward to having an open, frank, and fruitful discussion. I am especially pleased that we will also be hearing from Kakenya Ntaiya, a remarkable young woman from Kenya who has a very inspiring personal story to share. Her story is a story of hope and success.

As the Senior Coordinator of International Women's Issues here the State Department, my Office is called to work on a broad range of issues that affect women's human rights. Our mission is to ensure that women's concerns are integrated into all key pillars of U.S. foreign policy and to promote global respect for women.

Because early marriage poses grave risks not only to women's basis rights but also their health, economic independence, education, and status in society, we cannot remain silent.

This practice is especially troubling in that it treats young girls as property, deprives them of having a voice in determining their own future, and brings their childhood to a premature end. In many cases the practice is inseparable from the cycle of violence and abuse against women. Most tragic, perhaps, are instances of poor families forced to sell their daughters out of economic survival.

It is unconscionable that in the 21st century girls as young as 7 or 8 can be sold as brides. There is no denying that extreme poverty is the driving factor that has enabled the practice to continue, even in countries where it has been outlawed.

Linking the Fight to Prevent Early Marriage to U.S. Policy

The United States, as a defender of liberty and human rights is firmly committed to defending the vulnerable. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush has recognized the connection between poverty, health, and education and has stated: "Studies throughout the world show that women's health and the opportunities they have in life are directly related to the strength of a country's economy and the level of education attained by its children." That is precisely why U.S. policies and programs to advance the status of women are specifically geared to replacing despair and poverty with hope and opportunity.

I would like to say a few words about the impact of early marriage and forced marriage in Afghanistan, a priority country for my office. Though Afghan women have been making tremendous strides since the fall of the Taliban, child marriage persists. Afghanistan has among the world's highest rate of maternal and infant mortality; early marriage is likely both a cause and a symptom of this problem.

According to the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, between 60% and 80 % of marriages in Afghanistan are forced marriages which give women no right to refuse. Many of those marriages, especially in the rural areas, involve girls below the age of 15. (And the UN Population Fund has reported that that in some rural areas of Afghanistan, children as young as six years old are married off by their families.)

I met recently with Afghan Minister of Health Fatimie who is a true champion for women. He called attention to issue of child marriage at several speaking events in Washington this month. He stressed that poverty is the cause of numerous problems facing Afghanistan, and is the driving factor that leads parents to sell their underage daughters as brides. He reiterated that health and education are key to tackling the underlying causes that perpetuate the acceptance of this practice.

State Department Response

To help understand and clarify the nature and scope of the early marriage problem around the globe, and in response to increased Congressional interest in this topic, the State Department recently conducted a survey with our embassies overseas to collect critical information about the legal age of marriage, the extent of underage marriage, and any efforts to combat child marriage in affected countries.

Sixty-four countries out of 182 polled reported child marriage to be of concern, the majority of which were found in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in parts of the Middle East and South Asia. However, a majority of posts surveyed pointed to the lack of reliable, official data as a major obstacle for assessing the extent of the practice of early marriage in the countries represented.

I would just like to share some key observations we collected:

* In most regions, posts indicated that child marriage is more likely to occur in rural areas and that in general "poverty, lack of education, and unemployment are the root causes of social ills associated with early marriage." * The practice puts girls at greater risk of pregnancy and childbirth before they have reached physical maturity, a circumstance that often produces serious physical trauma, psychological disturbance, even domestic abuse and violence, and sometimes lifelong physical and/or emotional incapacities. * Some African posts cited additional health concerns, including the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases from older males to young females, and fistula. Women or girls who suffer from fistula are often stigmatized by the community and abandoned by their husbands. And they are less likely to seek medical attention. * In addition, the practice of polygamy further compounds the obvious health risks that disproportionately affect young women and girls. * They also identified a lack of knowledge, information, and access to services, education and economic opportunities as factors contributing to the incidences of early marriage.

While we can monitor and report on the instances of child marriage in developing countries, the response -- which must be an integrated approach -- is a greater challenge. But we can see that with the successes of some of our programs in Afghanistan and in other post-conflict and developing countries that we can have helped to open up opportunities for women. In Afghanistan we have trained women leaders, journalists who themselves have brought attention to issues facing women, and entrepreneurs who are building new lives for themselves and their families.

While we continue to follow all developments on this issue it becomes clear that our approach is the right one: we must continue to place emphasis on education, increasing access to adequate healthcare, and strengthening economic opportunities for women to give girls and their families hope and resources to choose an alternative path. Educating men must also be part of any sustainable strategy.

There are myriad ways to harness the programs underway or already deployed to have a multiplier effect. The State Department and USAID have already had demonstrable success through a number of our programs on the community level in a number of countries, but we need to build on this success to reduce and eliminate incidences of child marriage.

Another new opportunity is President Bush's Initiative for Africa. Women's Justice and Empowerment in Africa presents another opportunity, and a new angle to target the problem. The President announced a $55 million initiative to support women's justice and empowerment in Africa, with a focus on combating violence and abuse against women. Empowering women economically and enforcing the rule of law is another part of the toolkit to strengthen the rights and dignity of women and girls.


The United States is committed to creating opportunities and capacity-building through programs and initiatives that give women the knowledge, skills, and resources to take charge of their own lives. Girls can be direct beneficiaries of these programs.

This reminds me of something Secretary Rice herself has said, "we have to deal with the world as it is, but we don't have to accept the world as it is." She has challenged us to stretch the limits to make the world freer and more prosperous for all humanity, in other words "to enlarge the realm of the possible."

We need to be shining the spotlight on the problem of early marriage and its underlying causes. In this way we can bring hope to those trapped in the cycle of poverty, a reality that leaves young girls vulnerable to forced marriage before they have had the opportunity to experience childhood. Despite the many challenges that we are talking about today, we should recognize that increasingly women are not just victims, they are agents of change. We must continue to do everything we can to ensure that girls have every opportunity to become agents of change and to expand the "realm of what is possible" for their societies and the world at large.

Released on September 14, 2005


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