07/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Taking Mother's Day to Capitol Hill and Beyond

Most of us are grateful to the loving mothers who reared us, taught us right from wrong and gave us the strength, hope and courage to be the adults we are today. And while there are certainly those among us who had painful childhoods or strained relationships with our own mothers (thankfully, I am not one of those), overall, we have it pretty good in the United States.

Around here, Mother's Day generally involves Sunday brunch on a late-spring afternoon -- a time when mothers and their children can socialize, bond and do their part to keep greeting card companies and florists in business. As a mom who has a great relationship with my mother and with my daughter (and support from a sweet husband and a wonderful father), I love celebrating Mother's Day with my family; it's an annual tradition I look forward to every year.

As an activist, however, I also feel strongly that Mother's Day should be a time to take stock of what each of us can do to make things better for all mothers and children, not only here at home, but in other parts of the world. That's why I'll be on Capitol Hill next week to ask my congresspeople to consider three important areas that affect women and children: preventing child marriage, improving maternal health and ending global hunger.

It may seem silly to talk about child marriage in our country, where the average age at first marriage for females is 26. But in places like Niger or Yemen, where the average age for marriage is around 18, it's a different story. While 18 may not sound too young to get married, keep in mind that the number is an average, meaning that a great number of girls in their early teens -- even as young as eight or nine years old -- are being married off to men who are often twice their age and have other wives. Can you imagine giving your 5th grade daughter away to a 30-year-old man? Several horrible stories have surfaced recently about child brides and deaths because of complications resulting from sexual intercourse and childbirth. True, some traditions are so ingrained in cultures that making progress against them is a slow process. Even though child marriage is outlawed in many developing countries, the practice continues due to a variety of reasons, including the low value placed on the lives of girls and a lack of resources to enforce the laws. But when our government here at home takes a stand against practices such as child marriage in other parts of the world, it benefits everyone.

No matter in which country they marry, girls who marry before 18 are twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands as girls who marry later in life. In the developing world, marriage often ends a girl's educational opportunities, lowering her future economic and personal prospects. Hunger and poverty are key factors in continuing the vicious cycle of early marriage. And, get this: whether they're married or not, girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than women ages 20 to 24. Did you know that pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15-19?

So, while we grapple with which shoes to wear to Mother's Day brunch, other mothers and children are facing much more life-altering issues. I'm no "Debbie Downer," but as you are remembering and appreciating your mother this weekend, please also think of the mothers around the world whose lives could be greatly improved if we each do our part to better care for women and children everywhere.

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