US, African leaders must tackle child marriage

This week, more than 40 African heads of state are in Washington, D.C., for the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The theme is “Investing in the Next Generation,” which is fitting given the youthful demographics of the continent and the significant issues the next generation faces — from recent abductions of Nigerian schoolgirls to unemployment and forced recruitment of child soldiers, to name a few.

I hope the Obama administration will use this opportunity to lead for girls and announce new commitments to end child, early and forced marriage. Evidence compiled by the International Center for Research on Women and others has consistently shown that adolescent girls are among the most vulnerable to rights abuses and are yet the best-positioned to contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous future when they have a fair chance — a decent education, access to health care and the opportunity to contribute economically.

However, these opportunities escape child brides, who are less likely to finish their education, more likely to experience violence, sexually transmitted infections, early pregnancy and complications in childbirth, typically living a life of domestic servitude. This is not only a violation of their fundamental human rights, but also an unnecessary and avoidable challenge to the outcomes African leaders gathering this week seek — more educated, healthy and productive societies.

As such, the U.S. president and first lady should use the summit to advance a child marriage-free future for the continent. Specifically, they should work together with their African counterparts to advance bilateral and multilateral commitments to end child marriage, all of which should be guided by a concrete and comprehensive strategy outlining what impact we seek to achieve, and by when. This would be fitting and appropriate given that White House aides assure us that gender and youth will be “cross-cutting issues” running throughout summit events.

The public schedule shows one “signature event” on investing in women for peace and prosperity today, and the Spousal Program on Aug. 6 — to be co-chaired by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush — also holds some promise given the first lady’s remarks last week in support of girls’ education and ending child marriage (it’s only the second time she’s spoken out on global gender issues). Either would be an excellent opportunity to commit to an action agenda to end child marriage.

There is some momentum behind this. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit comes on the heels of last month’s Girl Summit co-hosted by the United Kingdom and UNICEF, where the U.K. committed nearly $100 million in funding to end female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage. The event set the stage for similar leadership by the United States, which participated but whose commitments were considerably smaller by comparison. There have been some encouraging statements by U.S. leaders — most recently the first lady, but also from the Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, Secretary of State John Kerry on World Population Day and even a presidential proclamation issued on the last International Day of the Girl.

Lots of good talk, but so far no clear vision for the change we seek to make.

There’s appetite for action among African leaders, too — the African Union recently launched a campaign to end child marriage. The government of Zambia has been actively developing support for U.N. resolutions on the practice, the Ethiopian government has been tackling the practice at home and many others across the continent are beginning to recognize and meet the needs of already married adolescents girls, many of whom lack access to education, health care and basic rights to determine their own future. So this week’s summit is just the right forum to kick-start those efforts.

However, as the meeting opens, the agenda is admittedly trade, energy and security-heavy. Groups like Human Rights Watch have criticized the White House for the alleged insufficient attention given to human rights in the agenda. There will reportedly be no communique or single outcome document from the summit, and new policy and funding announcements will be sprinkled across the event’s three days. This will make it difficult to track progress and outcomes — or we may not have any at all, which would certainly be a missed opportunity.

Either way, the fact remains that if the United States and its African partners are serious about “investing in the next generation,” they cannot afford to ignore child marriage when the highest prevalence rates in the world are in Western and sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 26 million women on the continent who were married before their 18th birthday. They must not think small with a few scattered investments in a handful of countries, but push farther to ensure their governments are looking across the various disciplines of justice, diplomacy, health care and education to determine how they can position existing efforts to drive change. Diplomats should be negotiating with their counterparts — in the AU, the U.N. and bilaterally — demonstrating that they take this issue seriously. Finance ministers should be budgeting serious resources to tackle the practice, from legal reforms to education platforms to targeted strategies for service sectors such as justice and health care. For its part, and as a major donor to African education, health care, food security and governance initiatives, the U.S. should craft a strategy that will guide these investments to ensure they best address factors that influence child marriage. And everyone should be supportive of a target on ending child, early and forced marriage in the post-2015 development agenda.

Obama clearly wants to make investment in Africa a part of his foreign policy legacy. As the White House clearly states, “focusing on the next generation is at the core of a government’s responsibility and work, and this summit is an opportunity to discuss ways of stimulating growth, unlocking opportunities, and creating an enabling environment for the next generation.”

At the core of that mission should be the U.S. and African leaders working together to ensure every girl and boy who comprises that next generation has the free and full capacity to stay in school, to understand and access their rights, to protect the integrity of their bodies and to determine if, when and whom to marry.

These are all basic human rights and core American values.

A link to the article can be found here.