Commentary: Wait ‘Till Next Year

Article Date

17 December 2010

Article Author

By Dan Martin

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

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My older brother is a huge Chicago Cubs fan, and his mantra, along with many Cubs fans is, “Wait ‘till next year,” usually spoken in mid-August when the Cubs are officially out of playoff contention. It just so happens that Cubs fans have been waiting for more than a century for a World Series championship.

The U.S. House of Representatives sent the same message to child brides on Dec. 16, when it voted against the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S 987).” I watched on C-SPAN as member after member rejected legislation that would recognize child marriage as a human rights violation and integrate child marriage prevention activities into pre-existing development programs. The bill – bipartisan enough to garner unanimous support to pass the Senate – needed two-thirds of the House to vote yea. It failed by 31 votes.

This child marriage prevention bill offered the most comprehensive response from the U.S. government to this serious global issue. And we blew it. Once again, politics and partisanship got in the way of good policy. Twelve courageous Republicans bucked party leadership and voted for the measure, and deserve sincere thanks and praise. On the other side of the aisle, nine Democrats voted against the measure for reasons beyond my understanding.

If a bill as straightforward as this cannot pass, what does that signal for legislation dealing with women and girls in the coming years?

I have to wonder, too, if this bill failed because the image of little girls being forced to marry is too far from legislators’ daily routine on Capitol Hill. It’s not happening in their back yards, so why care? Besides, girls impacted by this legislation can’t vote in the next election. But every day around the world, an estimated 25,000 girls, some as young as 8, are forced to marry, pushed to care for a husband and pressured into sexual relationships and childbirth before their bodies are developed. All of this, instead of feeding their minds at school and playing outside with their friends.

On the House floor, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) outlined the reasons for rejecting the legislation that would have helped millions of child brides. He said he supported efforts to stop child marriage and that he has seen girls forced to wed in other countries. Concern over the problem “is not a partisan issue,” he said. However, Burton added that he and many of his colleagues were worried about the possible cost of implementing the Senate-passed bill, which could be up to $67 million over the next five years. “I don’t want anyone to think that we’re not sympathetic to (child marriage),” Burton said. “We are. But our fiscal problems are of paramount concern to all of us.”

I don’t buy that argument. Yes, the nation’s fiscal issues must be taken into account. But the analysis that the bill would add to the deficit is based on an erroneous reading of the legislation. The bill doesn’t authorize one additional cent in appropriations; rather, funding would come from existing appropriations.  In fact, an entire section of the bill, titled, “Authorization for Appropriations,” was stripped out of the bill before it passed the Senate.

ICRW has been a leader in both research and advocacy around the issue of child marriage for almost a decade. Needless to say, the House vote dealt a serious blow to us and our colleagues who are working to prevent child marriage. But heavy on my mind today are those child brides beginning or ending their days in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nicaragua.

Congress may be able to “wait ‘till next year,” but millions of girls around the world don’t have that option.

Dan Martin is ICRW’s senior advocacy specialist.