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US legislates to prevent child marriage worldwide

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In a development welcomed by child marriage activists, the United States Congress has passed a bill stating that child marriage breaches fundamental human rights – and requiring the US to integrate the prevention of this harmful practice across its development programmes.

Child marriage activists are celebrating the passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 by the United States Congress on Thursday: an important step for women experiencing violence within the United States, as well as for communities affected by child marriage in the developing world.

The bill, which will now be signed into law by President Obama, describes child marriage as a human rights violation and requires the US to develop a comprehensive, integrated strategy to prevent early marriage in developing countries. It represents a victory for members of the Elders-initiated Girls Not Brides coalition, who have advocated for stronger measures at the national and international levels to eliminate this harmful practice.

More than 25,000 girls every day are married off before they reach the age of 18. This increases the likelihood that they will drop out of school, impacting on their education and economic prospects. It also leaves them vulnerable to serious health risks associated with early sexual activity and childbearing, and to the risk of domestic violence and HIV infection from older husbands.

The Act will require the prevention of child marriage to be integrated across US development programmes – whether focused on health, education, or economic development – in countries where the practice is most prevalent. US embassies will also have to include child marriage rates in their individual country reports on human rights.

From aspiration to legislation

In August last year, Archbishop Tutu and Graça Machel urged the United States administration to make eliminating child marriage a foreign policy goal. “Without tackling child marriage, the US government cannot hope to achieve its development ambitions,” they wrote in the Washington Post.

Later that week, after speaking to Graça Machel in South Africa, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed the US’ commitment to eliminating child marriage:

“The United States will intensify our diplomacy and development work to end child marriage, and it’s a personal commitment of mine as well as a great value that South Africa, the United States, and so many people around the world share.”

Desmond Tutu with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Desmond Tutu with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Stephanie Sinclair | VII)

The Elders also travelled to the United States in October 2012 for the first-ever International Day of the Girl. After meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, Desmond Tutu left the State Department “with his heart singing” as a result of new US government and private initiatives to prevent child marriage and promote the education of girls.

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