The clever marketing (hoax) website marryourdaughter.com has already been taken down, but I'm sure many of you saw it: "Like most girls her age, 15-year-old Ashlee R. is into sports, clothes and current pop music. She's a typical Midwestern teen-except she's looking for a husband."
What I loved about this site was how it gave early marriage an "American" face to see if real American adults changed their feelings about the practice. It's one thing to know 12 and 14-year-old girls are married off to significantly older men elsewhere; quite another to think about how it would play out here.
Because early marriage occurs for a host of socio-economic reasons, it may be tempting to think that in very poor societies, early marriage might not be so terrible. If a family can afford to pay or even care for a wife, doesn't that necessarily mean they are better off than the family giving the girl away? But early marriage is often an indication that a society views its girls as commodities. And it's a self-perpetuating cycle. In societies where girls are married off early, the tradition tends to continue unless some dramatic social or economic changes occur.
UNFPA's Executive Director, Thoraya Obaid, a woman for whom I have tremendous respect, once said that there is a perception that, for adolescents in low-income countries, being married ensures them a safe passage to adulthood. She made the point that nothing could be further from the truth.
Early marriage almost always means less education, limited opportunities and economic insecurity for the married girl. Those things can lead to vulnerability and abuse. Girls who marry early have a disproportionately higher risk of maternal death. Girls aged 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24.
Why should our next President care?
Because it's a matter of equality and justice that affects us all. Today, the world has the largest cohort of young people and adolescents than ever before in human history. Of the more than 6 billion people in the world, over 1 billion are young people. Our common future on this planet will be determined by the actions of this remarkably large group of young people. If we want a better tomorrow, then we must begin by fighting for equal opportunity for girls, particularly those that are the most vulnerable.
According to a 2004 study, within the next decade, more than 100 million girls currently living in low-income countries will be married before the age of 18. That's a lot of girls around the world who will never get the same opportunities as our daughters. It's a lot of girls having children too young, and too often, stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Marryourdaughter.com aside, teenage marriage isn't likely to be on the radar screen of any of the Presidential candidates, while the issue of unmarried teens having sex will surely creep in and plant itself between common sense and moralistic rants.
Early marriage is not about two crazy 15-year-olds in love, but rather, it's both a symptom and a cause of women's lower status and the societal problems that accompany it. And while UNFPA works to prevent early marriage all over the world by encouraging parents to keep their daughters in school and by teaching young women vocational skills so they don't have to rely on husbands, we – the United States – will stay well away from those solutions. Why? Because our President, for the sixth year in a row, withheld the U.S. contribution to UNFPA.
Our next President has to understand the link between health and economics and between women's access to health and their status in society. He or she has to understand the difference between modern arranged marriage and forced early marriage, between wanting more children and being expected to have more children. Our next President must understand how women's health and rights need to be global concerns upon which our united future depends.