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United Methodists applaud child marriage legislation

A young girl holds up her chalkboard at the United Methodist Church's Adjame Primary School outside Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
June 1, 2009

Keeping girls in school is a priority. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

Yet every day girls as young as 9 and 10 become child brides in Africa, Asia and parts of the Arab region. Their malnourished, young bodies are not developed enough for childbirth.

That is why The United Methodist Church’s social justice agency is applauding legislation recently introduced in both chambers of Congress to prevent child marriage in developing countries.

If approved, foreign assistance will support projects focusing on keeping girls in school, initiatives that foster leadership opportunities and efforts to reduce the spread of AIDS.

“Many girls marry older men who are often infected with AIDS,” said Linda Bales, executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “This act of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is the right one, and we urge the U.S. House of Representatives to approve this authorization bill.”

According to UNICEF's estimates, over 60 million women aged 20-24 were married or in union before the age of 18. Worldwide, 100 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade alone. In countries like Niger and Bangladesh, grinding poverty and adherence to tradition results in more than three out of every four girls being married before they turn 18.

Linda Bales

One study in Kenya and Zambia showed a young girl’s married status increased the chances of her contracting HIV by an astounding 75 percent. In Ethiopia, half of all girls under the age of 15 are married.

“I traveled to Ethiopia about three years ago and visited a school for girls in the northern part of that country where poverty is great and child marriage is common,” Bales said.  “The chair of the board of this school was the father of one of the girls. And, I fondly remember him saying, ‘I was ready to sell my daughter for marriage, but then I heard about this school and the importance of educating girls. I now am fully convinced that girls deserve, like boys, an education and should not marry until they are ready.’ It was a very moving moment – to see a man, a father--do a 180 degree turn and take on a new belief system that brought his daughter freedom.”

The issue of child marriage figures prominently in the United Methodist campaign on the ground since March called “Operation Healing Hope.” The campaign seeks to eradicate obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged labor without prompt medical intervention. The condition happens when a pregnant woman’s pelvis is too underdeveloped for childbirth.

“Prevention is key to bringing about an end to obstetric fistula,” says campaign organizer the Rev. Jill Wiley. “To avoid such a fate, girls and young women need to develop their lives and bodies more fully before marriage and childbirth. That is why it is crucial to have child marriage addressed in legislation that will include authorizing initiatives to help girls and women across the world.”

“The U.S. invests billions of dollars to improve the lives of people in the poorest countries. Child marriage is a horrific human rights violation that undermines that investment,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the House bill’s lead sponsor.

“The manner in which a country treats women and children says a lot about its cultural and societal values,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who is lead sponsor of the Senate’s bill along with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. “Young teenage girls who are forced to marry face serious health risks and are often far less educated than their unmarried peers. This bill will bring this harmful practice to an end and give millions of girls around the globe hope for a better future.”

Kakenya’s dream

Kakenya Ntaiya, a native of Kenya, is proof that an education can change a child’s life. She defied the odds and graduated from United Methodist-related Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., with a bachelor of arts in international studies and political science in 2004. She is pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Kakenya Ntaiya of Kenya speaks in 2006 to the denomination’s Board of Church and Society about defying the cultural practice of child marriage. A UMNS file photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

She is also keeping a promise to her village and has returned to build the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a school for girls in Enoosaen, Kenya.

“We are so hopeful that our girls will finally have a safe place to call home; a place where their dreams will be nurtured and where they will be inspired, encouraged, and challenged to become agents of change in their communities,” she said. “These girls will have a chance to assume big roles in a society where women traditionally have not been given leadership roles.”

Ntaiya was invited by Bales to speak at a meeting of the Board of Church and Society in 2006 about defying the cultural practice of child marriage and about the girls in her village who have suffered from the custom.

In the rural village where Ntaiya was born, the practice of child marriage is common. She was engaged at age 5.

“As soon as girls reach puberty, they are subjected to female genital cutting, marriage, childbirth, and caring for their household for the rest of their lives,” she said. “From the time they are born, their mindsets are tuned to believe that this is the only destiny they have.”

"There is so much the United Methodist Church can do to help," she said. "Prayers help. Sponsor a girl to go to school, make connections.

"Imagine your daughters or other children you know being forced into marriage at 9 years old," she said. "Imagine them pregnant at 12."

*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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UNICEF: Child marriage

International Center for Research on Women: Child marriage

United Methodist Board of Church and Society

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