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How Can US Foreign Policy Address Child Marriage?

October 11, 2016

This post is written In honor of International Day of the Girl Child.


Earlier in the year, on International Women’s Day, The United Nations announced an initiative to end child marriage by 2030. If nothing is done to accelerate change, women married as children will reach one billion by 2030.  While child marriage is well-documented as a heinous crime against girls, from a development perspective, addressing the causes of child marriage will be more expedient than addressing the consequences of child marriage: vulnerability to violence, maternal mortality, HIV Aids, and feminization of poverty, among others. As we mark the first year after nations committed to a new development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, ending early child marriage must be defined as both a women’s rights issue and a development imperative.

The reauthorization of the US Violence against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 provided another tool in the arsenal in the war against child marriage. Combating child marriage is now an integral part of US foreign policy. The law calls for directives to the US Secretary of State to develop and implement a plan to prevent child marriage, promote empowerment of girls at risk of early marriage, and target countries where a high prevalence of child marriage is known to occur.

The VAWA now requires that the State Department include the rate of child marriage in its country status reports. In 2012, Archbishop Tutu and Graça Machel of The Elders called upon the United States to make combating child marriage a foreign policy goal. As they argued in the Washington Post “Without tackling child marriage, the US government cannot hope to achieve its development ambitions.”

Then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to “intensify our diplomacy and development work to end child marriage” and built powerful moral authority for this promise by revealing that combating child marriage was a “personal commitment” of hers. In the US several states allow girls to get married as young as 12 with the permission of the court. With no minimum age requirement for marriage,Massachusetts and Virginia are battleground states for overturning these laws.

If the US is to tackle child marriage, one of the important first steps would be to help bring its own laws in compliance with the minimum age of marriage for both men and women as affirmed in international treaties. An equally important step is to ratify the international conventions which speak to the minimum age of marriage. 

An interlocking reading of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) call for full and free consent in marriage. The CEDAW Committee in General Recommendation 21 (Article 16.2) states unequivocally that “the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years for both man and woman.”…marriage should not be permitted before they have attained full maturity and capacity to act.

The US government is alone with South Sudan in resisting the ratification of the CRC and is one of a handful of countries, along with Iran that is yet to ratify the CEDAW. The ratification of these treaties will bolster the US’s efforts combat child marriage as part of its foreign and domestic policy.    

Many countries, like several states in the United States have no minimum age of marriage.  Saudi Arabia and Yemen too lack a minimum age of marriage.  Even in countries that enshrine a minimum age of marriage, the consent of the guardian or the court to grant permission for child marriage provides a legal loophole that clearly undermines any good faith effort to harmonize national laws with international conventions.   Iran’s minimum age of marriage in accordance with Civil Code 2007 is “full thirteen solar years in the case of girls and full fifteen solar years in the case of boys is subject to the permission of the tutor and conditional upon the observance of the good of the pupil as determined by competent court.” In Afghanistan too although the legal age of marriage is 16 and the marriage of a female less than 15 is prohibited, an exception is allowed with the permission of the father and the court. 

If the US is to influence the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, it needs to ensure that its own laws comply with international treaties and that international treaties are respected by all, including the US. 


Rangita de Silva de Alwis is the Associate Dean of International Affairs, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her report to UNICEF on Child Marriage and the Law has helped law reform initiatives.