Monday, November 14, 2011

Child Marriage: Also a First-World Problem

photo by Jean-Marie Hullot

by: Ashley Binetti
“How can a 10-year-old girl marry an old man?! I’m 10! Isn’t someone doing something about this?” An appropriate gut reaction from a former student, and an even better question.
Forced marriage, especially among young children, is a widespread human rights abuse and is well documented in many countries in the developing world; UNICEF reports that over 60 percent of women in Sub-Saharan African and Bangladesh are married prior to their 18th birthday.
Because of pervasive gender norms and discrimination, girls are most often the victims: viewed as an economic burden, a girl may be married to cement an alliance that protects her family’s economic well-being, or married off to pay debts. Marrying off girls is also seen as a way to protect their purity until marriage, and helps perpetuate the reproductive role of women in society.
According to poverty-fighting NGO Care, if this practice continues, 100 million girls in developing countries will be married within the next decade. This means that in the time it takes you to read this blog, over 260 children will become child brides, married to spouses more than twice their age. That amounts to an average of 25,000 new child brides every day for the next ten years.
Investigative journalist Stephanie Sinclair has documented case studies in India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Ethiopia through a partnership with National Geographic. This documentary, Too Young to Wed, serves as a poignant reminder of the grave, and sometimes deadly, consequences of forced child marriage.

(NOTE: Viewer discretion advised; this film may not be appropriate for all audiences).
What many don’t realize is that child marriage does not exclusively affect far-away countries. A 2011 survey conducted by the American NGO the Tahirih Justice Center discovered 3,000 cases of forced marriage in America over the past two years. These are only the reported cases. The report notes, "By force, fraud, or coercion, the[se women and girls] were being compelled to marry men from their families' countries or regions of origin, and--if the young woman was a US citizen--she might then be forced to sponsor a fiance or spouse visa to enable the groom to come to the United States."
In some states, children are allowed to marry with parental consent as early as 13 years old. A recent example is the marriage of 16-year-old Courtney Stodden to 51-year-old actor Doug Hutchinson in Nevada.
Analysis of child marriage under international human rights law turns on the issue of consent. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child, but is silent on the issue of child marriage and legal capacity to consent. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that marriage must be entered into with the consent of both parties, and while it does not elaborate on the question of at what age children obtain the capacity to consent, it does state explicitly that marriage is a human right of “men and women of full age.” Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) echoes this principle of consent and further states that, “the betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect,” but leaves it up to individual states to designate the age of consent.  Article 10 of the UN International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that marriage “must be entered into with the free consent of the intending spouses.”   
While cases like the Stodden-Hutchinson marriage are murky under international human rights law, the other examples of child marriage described above clearly violate international human rights standards because they involve coercion and a lack of consent. Multiple elements of the forced marriage of children are specifically addressed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the prohibitions of sexual exploitation, trafficking, abuse, neglect, and the protection of the right to education. These provisions support the ultimate goal of protecting an individual's right to a childhood.
Unfortunately, the United States has failed to ratify most of these international conventions. Of the UN member countries, only Somalia and the United States have failed to ratify the CRC. Additionally, the United States is the only developed country that has not yet ratified CEDAW, and it has also declined to ratify the ICESCR.
The domestic legal landscape reveals a similar resistance to recognizing child marriage as a human rights abuse. Last year, The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010 (S. 987) was introduced in the House and the Senate to recognize child marriage as a human rights violation. It garnered 42 co-sponsors and was passed unanimously by the Senate. The bill seemed destined for success, until it was voted down in the House in a shocking turn of events. Oddly enough, some of the bill’s 142 House co-sponsors voted against it. House Republicans circulated a memo in the hours before voting, arguing against the bill, claiming it would cost too much and could be used to overturn pro-life laws. However, these concerns were unfounded; the bill mentioned only potential spending, did not appropriate additional funding, and in no way treated the issue of abortion or family planning. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) stated, “I am truly disappointed in this result, but I’m not giving up on these children.”
The fight is not yet over. The bill has been reintroduced for consideration by the 112th Congress, and human rights NGOs have already begun the campaign to rally support.

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