By Helene D. Gayle, MD, MPH
President and CEO, CARE
Many young girls daydream about their wedding days, but few ever imagine being married at age 12. Tragically, that was the fate of Elham Assi, a girl in Yemen who was married to a man nearly twice her age. According to police and her mother, we learn that she bled to death after being forced to have sex with her husband.
Yemen is hardly the only country where this human rights violation is common. Worldwide, more than 60 million girls are married before age 17 - often to men twice their age or older. In poor countries around the world, governments condone or tolerate this practice, sometimes even after they have enacted laws against child marriage.
The problem isn't just religious or cultural, but the pressure of extreme poverty. Yet, child marriage also directly perpetuates poverty by cutting short a girl's education and reducing her chances of contributing to her family's income. Early marriage also puts girls at higher risk of injury and death in childbirth - a girl under the age of 15 is five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than a woman in her 20s. As in the case of Elham Assi, they're also more likely to become victims of domestic violence.
Societies cannot make progress against poverty until women are seen as equals. Fortunately, we Americans can take steps right now to help prevent child marriage. Members of Congress can co-sponsor and help pass the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2009. This important legislation not only recognizes child marriage as a human rights violation, but also develops a strategy to prevent child marriage and empower young girls. It integrates child marriage prevention approaches throughout U.S. foreign assistance programs and expands proven approaches that are helping to end this terrible practice.
You can speak for girls like Elham Assi of Yemen and countless other child brides around the world by calling your representative and urging him or her to co-sponsor the child marriage prevention act. You also can also join CARE on May 11 and 12 for the CARE National Conference and Celebration in Washington, DC. This annual event brings together hundreds of citizen advocates who will be speaking to policy makers on behalf of poor women and girls around the world. Sadly, it's too late for Elham, but it's not too late for countless girls around the world who face the prospect of a forced early marriage that destroys their dreams, and possibly their lives.