On December 1, 2011 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S. 987). The act, sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), sought to include child marriage prevention into several aspects of U.S. international affairs. The act would have required the Department of State to report on child marriage in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, directed the President to develop a strategy to combat child marriage, and integrated child marriage prevention into existing development programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This bill is the first time that the Senate has approved legislation on the issue of child marriage. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass the House of Representatives when it came up for a vote on December 16th. The House version of the bill (H.R. 2103), which was sponsored by Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), failed 241–166. It needed two-thirds to vote in favor of the bill due to the way it was brought to the floor. While having passed the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, the House’s failure to pass the bill in mid-December means the legislation is dead for this year.
In his response to the House’s failure to pass the legislation, Senator Durbin stated that, “The action on the House floor stopping the Child Marriage bill tonight will endanger the lives of millions of women and girls around the world. These young girls, enslaved in marriage, will be brutalized and many will die when their young bodies are torn apart while giving birth. Those who voted to continue this barbaric practice brought shame to Capitol Hill.”
According to the International Women’s Health Coalition, objections to the legislation, led by House Republicans leaders, appears to have had “nothing to do with substance – the thousands of lives that could have been positively impacted by enactment of the legislation – but everything to do with politics.” Lead Republicans concocted arguments about the high costs of implementation in order to achieve opposition to the bill, despite the fact that the legislation was “actually an effort to make existing U.S. foreign assistance expenditures more effective.”
The bill recognizes child marriage as a human rights violation. Often young brides are at risk for health problems. For example, girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties or may develop long term health complications from childbirth. Worldwide, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women ages 15– 19. Furthermore, child brides are at high risk for domestic violence. Girls who marry before 18 are twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands as girls who married later. Child brides are also more likely to experience sexual abuse and have higher rates of HIV infection.
The bill brought necessary attention to a pervasive problem. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 60 million girls under the age of 18 are married, often without a choice, to much older men. At the current rate, an additional 100 million girls could be married within the next decade—25,000 children married each day. In Niger, where nearly three fourths of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, the request from fourteen year old Sahanatou Abdou, “[we,] the girls of this region, ask our parents to not give us in marriage at an early age and to not arrange marriages for us,” can be a novel statement, even if the sentiment has been long felt, unspoken.
Child marriage poses a particular problem in poor or developing nations. A practice linked to impoverished households, often child marriage in perpetrated the light of a perceived economic gain. Yet, children who are married young are more likely to remain poor. Child marriage reduces education and work opportunities, leaving little to none opportunity for self improvement, empowerment, or economic advancement. Reducing child marriage is not only cited as a benefit to individuals, but nations with high rates of child marriages have been identified as having high poverty rates, birth and death rates, and incidence of conflict, and low development ratings. On the other hand, transitioning nations that have successfully reduced rates of child marriage have seen economic growth, decline in birth and death rates, and an increase in education and employment opportunities for girls and women.
“We cannot say enough about the dedication of Sen. Dick Durbin and key staff, and of Rep. Betty McCollum and her dedicated staff. They “get it” – and gave it their all to have U.S. policy move forward to better the lives of millions of girls currently in extremely vulnerable situations,” said Ellen Marshall on the International Women Health Coalition’s blog Akimbo. “While the House of Representative may not be on the side of making meaningful change for girls living in places where being married at a very young age is a very real risk, we’ll keep looking for opportunities to end this blatant human rights violation,” continued Marshall.
 “Durbin Statement Regarding House Blocking Passage of a Bill to Protect Women and Girls from Child Marriage,” Press Release published on 17 December 2010, accessed on 21 December 2010, <http://durbin.senate.gov/showRelease.cfm?releaseId=300327>.
 Ellen Marshall, “House of Representatives Blocks Passage of Preventing Child Marriage Bill,” Akimbo, 17 December 2010, accessed 21 December 2010, <http://blog.iwhc.org/2010/12/house-of-representatives-blocks-passage-of-preventing-child-marriage-bill/,
 “Child Marriage Fact and Figures,” International Center for Research on Women, accessed 9 December 2010, <http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures>.
 CARE “CARE Commends U.S. Senate on Passage of International Preventing Child Marriage Act,” Press Release published on 1 December 2010, accessed 9 December 2010, <http://www.care.org/newsroom/articles/2010/12/Child-marriage-senate-20101201.asp>.
 “Child Marriage Fact and Figures” International Center for Research on Women; “Real Lives: Preventing Early Marriage in Niger and Benin,” UNICEF, 7 October 2004, accessed 9 December 2010, <http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/niger_1420.html>.
 International Center for Research on Women, “Child Marriage and Poverty,” 2006, accessed 9 December 2010, <http://www.icrw.org/files/images/Child-Marriage-Fact-Sheet-Poverty.pdf>.
 United Nations Population Fund, “Child Marriage Fact Sheet,” 2005, accessed 9 December 2010, <http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2005/presskit/factsheets/facts_child_marriage.htm>.
 Ellen Marshall, “House of Representatives Blocks Passage of Preventing Child Marriage Bill.”