Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published on RH Reality Check.
By Jodi Jacobson
In an act that Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said "brought shame to Capitol Hill" last Thursday, the House Republican leadership banded together at the last minute, and on purely specious grounds, to defeat a piece of legislation six years in the making aimed at preventing child marriage worldwide. The bill was supported by a wide-ranging coalition of groups including the International Women’s Health Coalition and CARE-USA.
An estimated 60 million girls in developing countries now ages 20 to 24 were married before they reached the age of 18. The Population Council estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue.
Child marriage, noted Durbin, is often carried out through force or coercion.
It deprives young girls — and sometimes boys — of their dignity and human rights. In some countries, it is not uncommon for girls as young as seven or eight years old to be married. These young victims are robbed of their childhoods. In addition to denying tens of millions of women and girls their dignity, child marriage also endangers their health. Marriage at an early age puts girls at greater risk of dying as a result of childbirth. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for women 15 to 19 years old in developing countries. Their children also face higher mortality rates.
Ending child marriage is an important human rights goal in and of itself. It also is one of the key factors in reducing the spread of HIV and AIDS, reducing maternal and infant deaths, improving family health, and encouraging economic development. In the words of Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN):
No girl who is 11, 12, 13 and 14 should be forced to marry a man years or decades older. Yet, millions of young girls in the world’s poorest countries are forced into marriage every year — sold and traded like a farm animal, raped by their husbands, and forced into lives of servitude and poverty.
With the goal of eliminating this practice worldwide, Senator Durbin joined with Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to introduce the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, requiring the U.S. government to develop an integrated, strategic approach to combating child marriage by ensuring more effective us of existing resources. The bill also seeks to promote the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of women and girls.
As we reported earlier this week, the bill, S. 987, passed unanimously in the Senate (all 100 Republicans and Democrats), and was sent on to the House yesterday for final passage.
And as soon as it landed there, the Republican leadership set out to defeat it.
First, just after noon yesterday, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to House Republicans forcefully urging them "to oppose the Senate bill, S. 987, the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010,” when it comes up for a vote today in its current version." (See below for the full text).
This letter then went on to argue — without merit — that the bill would cost $108 million and urged votes for a "new" alternative bill crafted by Ros-Lehtinen.
In fact, S. 987 is an authorizing bill and contains no new funding. Rather, the bill was purposefully crafted to make the most effective use of existing U.S. international assistance by ensuring effective coordination among various development efforts. As I wrote the other day, the bill:
seeks to ensure that our policies and funding are comprehensive, coordinated, and have the maximum effectiveness in ending a serious violation of human rights while promoting development goals on which we have labored for decades.
Later in the day, at 6:53 pm just before the vote was to be held, Eric Cantor’s office sent out a "whip alert" to Legislative Directors of Republican offices, which now also contended that they should vote against the bill based on "pro-life" concerns.
What "pro-life" concerns? I find it literally impossible to say, since for one thing the bill itself seeks to protect and promote the life, health and survival of girls who are being married as young as age eight, and for another thing the bill, in that it seeks to prevent child marriage in the first place did not address the needs of already-married girls and young women who for obvious reasons otherwise need access to reproductive health care.
Let me repeat: This bill seeks to prevent children from being married and by extension from forcing young girls into sexual relations in a custom that is nothing but a blatant abuse of human rights. I would think if you called yourself "prolife" you might well be interested in preventing the marriage of a child bride such as the one pictured above as part of the slideshow.
But in their "abortion under every bed" mindset, Cantor and Ros-Lehtinen instructed their colleagues to vote against the bill because:
There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws.
In response to the blatant lies and misrepresentation of this bill in the letter circulated by the House Republican leadership, Congresswoman McCollum sent her own Dear Colleague, stating:
I strongly urge my Democratic and Republican colleagues to vote today to pass the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act — S. 987.
S. 987 passed the U.S. Senate unanimously and will be voted on today on the House floor.
The choice on S. 987 is not difficult or controversial.
The choice is between supporting a U.S. strategy to protect young girls from abuse, rape, and forced servitude OR opposing S. 987 while millions of children continue to be molested and enslaved.
S. 987 will establish a strategy and interventions to prevent child marriage and protect girls. It authorizes the use of existing State Department resources – there is no new spending authorized ($ZERO).
Opposing S. 987 will send the message that the world’s only superpower will not make the effort to stop the violent abuse, rape, and slavery of millions of little girls.
Protect the lives and futures of millions of girls and stop their abusers – I urge all my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, to vote to pass S. 987.
But this was to no avail, as House Republicans fell into line and voted against the bill, defeating it 241 to 166. [Editor's Note: The vote was 241 in favor of the bill and 166 against. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.]
"The action," stated Durbin:
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.
I can only conclude from this and other actions of the Republican party and the so-called pro-life movement that indeed the lives of women and girls mean little to nothing. Otherwise, how could anyone advocate for defeat of a bill that would prevent children younger than my own 14-year-old from being forced into marriage, rape, and childbirth before she could even finish primary school.
It is disgusting. These people clearly have no shame.
Next time you see John Boehner cry, it will clearly not be for the plight of the young girls being forced into marriage.