Remarks on Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Motherhood in the Americas

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Hall of the Americas
Washington, DC
November 29, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Susan, for that kind introduction. Susan has been nothing short of a miracle worker at USAID, and I’m grateful for all she’s done to champion development efforts for girls and women around the world. I’d also like to thank the Inter-American Commission of Women here at the OAS for organizing this event and for shining a much-needed spotlight on these issues.

It’s clear that our discussion today could not come at a more important time. Around the world, advocates, journalists, community workers, diplomats and girls are sounding a rallying cry against early and forced marriage. And thanks to research and the hard work of countless advocates, there is a growing understanding of the costs and the consequences of early and forced marriage. People are taking this knowledge and translating it into action in countries across the globe.

We’ve seen this just within the past month. Thousands of people have demonstrated against a proposed bill in Turkey that would have allowed men accused of sexually abusing girls to avoid punishment—by marrying them. That law has now been sent back to committee for civil society to weigh in. Kyrgyzstan just passed a law that addresses the number of young girls who are married before the age of 18. And activists around the world—from Jakarta to Harare—are using the 16 Days of Activism to call for governments to take action on this issue.

Today, that’s our call as well. In the Western Hemisphere, we need to take the next step—together—to address both the causes and the effects of child marriage and motherhood. In some ways, our region is behind others around the world in tackling this issue. Parts of the Americas are seeing an increase, not a decline, in early and forced marriage. And we don’t have the research or the programming found in regions like south Asia or Africa. The research we do have tells us that we ignore this issue at our own peril, because the cycle does not stop on its own.

That’s why this discussion is critical. Because the challenge also offers us an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to create a road map that will help governments, civil society organizations, communities, and girls themselves address these issues in a smart, comprehensive manner. The good news is that we aren’t starting from scratch. There’s already a viable legal framework in the region, with laws on the books that address early and forced marriage in many countries. And that means we can move forward with raising awareness of these laws and improving their implementation.

The United States also has a foundation in place to guide our own engagement on this issue. Earlier this year, Secretary Kerry launched a global strategy focused on a range of challenges facing adolescent girls, including early and forced marriage and motherhood. And within the region, we’re working to get at some of the root causes. We’re working to strengthen the justice sector, support survivors of gender-based violence, and raise awareness of women’s rights. We’re working to increase access to education for girls. And we’re working with people who have often been marginalized—including indigenous communities and people of African descent. In Brazil, which has the most child brides in the region, we’re working with UNICEF to give girls the support they need to reach their full potential. Through our program, adolescent girls are meeting mentors from different professions. They’re learning about entrepreneurship and innovation. And they’re using art and creative expression to tackle gender-based stereotypes.

As proud as we are of these projects, there is no question that we need to do more, particularly because of how this issue aligns with our strategic interests.We’ve seen time and again that when women and girls do better, countries do better as well. That means our broader shared goals for the Western Hemisphere—security, prosperity, and good governance—are deeply connected to the issues of child marriage and motherhood. So it’s in our interest to see that the laws around early marriage are respected and implemented. It’s in our interest to see that girls are going to school and getting the education they need to earn an income and eventually invest it in their own children’s health and education. It’s in our interest to see an end to the many forms of gender-based violence that fuel insecurity in homes, neighborhoods and communities.

But what will it take for us to see these outcomes? Today I’d like to offer three ways that we work together to end child marriage and child motherhood.

First, we need more research. No problem can be solved without a full understanding of the causes and remedies. So we have to keep asking, what is driving this issue here, as opposed to other places? And how is it best addressed under the different circumstances we see in the region? Again, that’s why this discussion is so important. The focus on best practices and lessons learned is critical to our future success. So I look forward to sharing the outcomes and recommendations you have with my colleagues at the State Department.

Second, countries need to put these issues on their policy agendas. The U.S. strategy on adolescent girls has been a valuable tool for us to bring together different parts of the U.S. government to plan and develop action on behalf of adolescent girls. And the strategy ensures that this work will continue into the next Administration. So this is a tool that other governments might consider to address the challenges facing adolescent girls, and do it in a comprehensive way.

This is a lesson we almost learned the hard way. Our strategy started out as a plan to address early and forced marriage. But the more we learned about the issue, the more we saw how connected it is to other issues, from poverty and education to safety and access to sexual and reproductive health services. So it’s important for policymakers to engage on these issues, and do so in a smart way.

Third and finally, we need to find ways to rally everyone around this issue. Policymakers and activists are critical, but we know we can’t do this work alone. We need community leaders and business owners, parents and teachers, and girls and boys themselves to be a part of our effort going forward. One of my favorite things about our strategy is that it features photos from Stephanie Sinclair. As a photojournalist, she is able to communicate issues like child marriage in a way that words—and certainly policy documents—simply cannot. We need more people like Stephanie, who can bring their individual skills to this issue and inspire others to join us. Through research, through policy, and in partnership with others, I have no doubt that we will make the progress we need to see on this issue in the Americas.

I’d like to end with one other story from our strategy, which features a young woman named Jimena. She was born to two teenage parents in Guatemala. By the age of eight, Jimena was already becoming a leader in her community, teaching other girls about human rights, education, and sexual and reproductive health. By the time she was 12, Jimena was speaking at events on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN.And that’s where I met her—at an event we did together. There are few things that are more humbling than speaking alongside a 12-year-old girl, because it reminds me that when I was 12, I was a long way from the UN. But Jimena said something that stuck with me. She said: “Invest in girls, because we are not just the future. We are the present.”

Her words are a reminder that we do this work for many reasons. Some of those reasons boil down to strategy and planning. We take action on child marriage because it’s in our best interests as countries or a region as a whole. But we also take action on child marriage because it’s in the best interests of girls themselves. And for this reason, it’s critical that we work on girls’ issues in partnership. That we listen to them and that we give them a platform to speak for themselves. So they can create their own future.

So in that spirit, it’s now my pleasure to turn it back over to Susan for a panel discussion with young women. Thank you.