Child Marriage as an American Foreign Policy Issue

 childbrideIndia

A 12-year old Indian child bride on July 30, 2011.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Council on Foreign Relations lecture by Rachel B. Vogelstein. She recently released a book in May 2013 entitled Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives. In her book she argues that child marriage is a violation of human rights as nearly five million girls are married under the age of fifteen every year, with some even younger. This practice forces the child to leave their families, marry against their will, and endure sexual and physical abuse. Sometimes these children will bear child while still in childhood themselves, causing a multitude of health problems and leading to divorce, abandonment, and death of the girl.

This practice, Vogelstein argues, drives societies already in poverty even deeper, entrenches their cultural traditions even further, and continues discrimination against girls in the country. Vogelstein calls for action by the U.S. in their foreign policy. This disease affects every facet of the country it plagues. Child marriage is linked to poor health, lower education, violence, instability, and disregard for the rule of law. These issues are not only important to girls, they are important to families, communities, and economies (a subject to which the U.S. should be interested in if nothing else).

Vogelstein admits that in recent years, the U.S. government has become more interested in gender equality for foreign policy as seen by the various acts of Congress focusing on creating a strategy to combat child marriage. She believes that in order for this to work, the U.S. needs to diplomatically raise the issue of child marriage, increase funding to combat this practice, become more planned by targeting its investments, and improving research and monitoring of the issue. I stand behind her and many others who see these things as necessary and important in the foreign policy of the U.S.

This lecture was given to a group of people in the political science major, or at least in a comparative politics class at the time. When U.S. involvement came up as a way to combat child marriage, many students reverberated the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” idea that reversing the culture of these countries is impossible, and even if the U.S. attempts to change this tradition, we will not be appreciated or approved of for meddling in their affairs. They argued that this “culture” should be left alone.

I was shocked at first, especially with this view coming from many women in the group. Their foreign policy on the issue was basically to do what we are doing now, which is not much. I couldn’t believe that these women, who should be the greatest advocates for women’s rights, were unmoved by this issue that does not only affect women, but entire countries.

So when, do I ask, is the right time to step in? How can the United States market a product of globalization without stepping onto a high horse or acting as if we are bearing the “white man’s burden?” I watched a TED talk a few weeks ago that mentioned the marketing of bed nets. Thousands of people in Africa still die of malaria each year, even though bed nets are being given out and offered for free in many places. The places that people were more likely to use them were actually the areas where the people had to buy their own nets. The reason was, interestingly, that the organizations selling the nets marketed them as a symbol of social status. The families didn’t buy a bed net because it protected them from malaria, but because the families that had a bed net hanging in the window were seen as wealthy and affluent. This rule of marketing can be used by the U.S. in changing any deep rooted tradition, although the process may be slow and involve community support.

With U.S. popularity at an all-time low in the Middle East from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, why should the U.S. care about women’s issues, especially when our help is often unwanted? I, with Vogelstein and many others, including Hillary Clinton, believe that the U.S. has a great responsibility to support women through our foreign policy. Although the U.S. may not be popular, we have a great deal of influence, power, and money to find the best way to market what we want, not unlike the marketing of bed nets or anything else seen as unneeded or pushed by the West. Although I may not agree with some of the brash actions and involvement in the Middle East, I believe that the U.S. should try to help in whatever way they possibly can. More funding and research to find the best way to involve women’s affairs in foreign policy is necessary, and in my opinion should be appropriated.

The issue of child marriage and women’s rights does not just affect women, it affects the entire world. In caring about foreign policy, these issues should be at the forefront of the United States’ agenda.

By LBL

Vogelstein, Rachel B. Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives. Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2013.

Vogelstein, Rachel B. “Why Ending Child Marriage Abroad Is Good for the U.S.,” The Atlantic, May 22 2013, accessed October 25, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/why-ending-child-marriage-abroad-is-good-for-the-us/276103/

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