Abolishing child marriage is wise, moral and good politics. Child marriage adds to the fragility of fragile states, where girls are often regarded as salable commodities. The kidnapping of 275 Nigerian schoolgirls in April by the Boko Haram terrorists to sell to waiting customers was unusual, but not unique.
The child-marriage belt stretches from Africa through the Middle East and on to Asia, and the collateral damage is horrific. The casualties are little girls, forced by culture, custom and sometimes their parents into unwanted marriage. The brides are girls in their early teens, occasionally as young as 10. Love has nothing to do with it. The husbands are often brutish men in their 30s, 40s and even 50s, on the prowl to rape and own unpaid domestic servants.
Forty African heads of state were in Washington this week for a United States-Africa Leaders Summit, and though child brides were not on the official agenda, the theme of the summit was "Investing in the Next Generation." One of the week's sessions was about "investing in women for peace and prosperity," co-chaired by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. The first lady spoke out only last week about the education of girls and for ending child marriage in developing nations. Last month, Britain and UNICEF were hosts of the International Girl Summit in London, and Britain committed nearly $100 million to a campaign to abolish female genital mutilation and forced early marriage. Momentum is clearly building to doing something about it, and child marriage has been talked about in hotels and coffee shops this week in Washington, where the African state visitors and their aides gathered.
Adolescent girls are among the most vulnerable to abuse, says the International Center for Research on Women, but such girls are among the best situated to take advantage of an education, health care and a job, if only they get the chance.
"These opportunities escape child brides," says Lyric Thompson, a policy director of the International Center, and they are "less likely to finish their education, more likely to experience violence, sexually transmitted infections, early pregnancy and complications in childbirth." This is the challenge to the visiting African leaders.
The African summit focused on big themes -- trade, energy and security -- but there's growing interest, if not always enthusiasm, for confronting primitive culture and ancient tradition to end sexual exploitation of children. One in three girls in the world will marry before 18; one in nine before she is 15. Rachel Vogelstein of the Council on Foreign Relations writes how child marriage perpetuates poverty over the generations, and its links to poor health, lack of education, violence and the usual miseries of developing nations.
Listening to the experiences of some of these young girls would break the heart of a knave. A girl named Zeinab, age 14, tells the African Union, which is campaigning against child marriage, how she was forced to marry an old man. "When I went to my husband's home, he tried to get close to me. I refused. He beat me. When I ran back to my family, they beat me, and took me back to his house." When she took a bite out of her husband's genitals, she got away.
"It is life," says the secretary-general of the World Young Women's Christian Association in Geneva. "It is not statistics."
Marriages of young girls were once common throughout the world. In ancient Greece, girls were often betrothed before puberty, and girls could marry at 12 in ancient Rome. Child marriage was expected in Imperial China. Marie Antoinette was presented to her husband for marriage when she was 15. Young girls of 15, 16 and 17 were often married on the American frontier, where Jewish and Christian clergymen strongly discouraged the marriage of girls before puberty. The practice gradually diminished in the early 20th century.
Child marriage thrives still in Africa, and particularly in Muslim countries, where it is sometimes difficult to argue against the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who married his third wife when she was 6. By Islamic accounts, he did not consummate the marriage until she was 9.
President Obama says he wants to make investment in Africa part of his legacy. The White House says a focus on the next generation "is at the core of a government's responsibility." Here's his opportunity to polish that legacy.