Opening Statement on Global Efforts To End Child Marriage

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, & Global Women's Issues
Washington, DC
September 14, 2016

As prepared

Good morning, Chairman Rubio, Ranking Member Boxer, Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on child, early, and forced marriage.

Every 60 seconds, an average of 27 girls under the age of 18 are married. That means that, over the course of this hearing, 400 girls will get married.

As child brides, and likely child mothers, these girls often drop out of school. Their economic opportunities are limited. And they have an increased risk of serious health concerns, from violence to sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.

This does not bode well for U.S. foreign policy objectives. The United States is working to increase the participation of women across the board, including in the formal workforce, because we know that women’s full participation is good for women—and it’s also good for their families and their countries.

But child marriage is a major barrier to that participation. It strips girls of their ability to learn and contribute to their societies and economies. In fact, this issue does the exact opposite of what we’d like to see around the world. Married girls are less likely to send their own children to school and to get them immunized. That means that, instead of advancing prosperity, this practice fuels the cycle of poverty.

When you consider that child marriage is a reality for more than 700 million women and girls alive today, it’s clear this issue matters—to policy makers, development practitioners, and foreign policy experts alike. In short, if our goal is to promote peace, security, and prosperity in countries around the world by empowering women, then ending child marriage is a major imperative.

In order for us to tackle this problem, it’s important to understand why it happens in the first place. Traditional gender roles, poverty, violence and insecurity all fuel the practice. And each of these drivers—whether it’s economic, cultural, or social—can be made worse by state fragility, conflict, and humanitarian emergencies.

Assistant Secretary Richard will go into more detail on these issues, but I’d like to underline the point that the problem of child marriages are often exacerbated by armed conflicts and instability. In conflict settings, families may view marriage as a way to keep their daughters safe or to lessen economic distress. And we see that violent actors, including rebel or insurgent groups, force women and girls into marriage.

For terrorist groups like Da’esh and Boko Haram, child marriage is a depraved tactic. They use it to terrorize and control entire populations and to recruit new fighters. Reports indicate that Da’esh has abducted more than three thousand women and girls, including those from Iraq’s religious community of Yezidis and other minority groups. Girls as young as 12 or 13 have been forced to marry violent extremists or sold to the highest bidder -- like cattle at an auction. And in Nigeria, more than 200 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok are still missing.

Which brings us to the question of how we can end this harmful practice once and for all. The fact that there is no single driver of child marriage means there is no single solution, no silver bullet that can address the issue once and for all. That’s why the United States takes a holistic approach to address the range of challenges that influence this issue—from health and safety, to education and economic opportunity, to the rights of women and girls around the world.

The policy foundation for this work is strong. Child marriage is addressed in three interagency policies. That includes the first-ever U.S. strategy on adolescent girls, which Secretary Kerry launched earlier this year. That strategy was made possible by the strong support of civil society and members of Congress. And we are proud that three other agencies—USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—as well as PEPFAR are part of this effort.

These agencies are also part of the Let Girls Learn initiative, because while there is no simple answer, we know that a quality education for girls is critical. Under this initiative, President Obama launched a challenge fund to design new, holistic programs for adolescent girls. These programs will be created, funded, tested, and implemented by USAID and the State Department, in partnership with a full spectrum of stakeholders in select focus countries, including Malawi, Tanzania, Nepal, and Laos. This initiative is an opportunity to bring the full weight of the U.S. government to bear on the issue of adolescent girls—and to do it in a way that’s smart, comprehensive, and coordinated.

But I want to emphasize that our efforts are also community-focused. Because we will not adequately address this political and tribal challenge without partnering on the local level with leaders, families, and, most importantly, girls themselves.

Earlier this year, I met a young filmmaker named Tinbit Daniel from Ethiopia, a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage. Tinbit created an animated series that shows strong men in respectful relationships with women. She is using art to combat gender-based violence. And she isn’t alone. She’s part of a growing movement of young people who are rewriting the story of their generation. They’re working so that young men are seen as more than perpetrators of violence, and young women are seen as more than victims.

That’s the kind of future we can create when everyone—girls and boys, women and men—have the freedom, the rights, and the tools they need to reach their full potential. The State Department is committed to making this a reality for girls around the world. Because we know that when these girls are empowered, their communities are safer, their economies are stronger, and their countries more likely to reach their full potential.

Thank you again for your leadership and commitment to this important issue. I look forward to our conversation this morning.