Taking the Issue of Forced Child Marriage to Congress
I”m afraid I might become one of those people. You know, those people. The ones that you start to have a conversation about the weather, the price of fresh produce, and it always comes back to that heavy issue. That issue that you know is important, that has a personal impact on someone, someone that lives far away. But not you. I started at CARE literally four weeks ago. I have been following the issues that they advocate on for years, but always at a distance, a sign-the-email-petition type of way. Today I got to see what my CARE colleagues have been working on for weeks, for months. What they have seen from their work in more than 70 countries around the world, the issues my peers like Katie Porter have known for years. Issues like the horrendous practice of forced child marriage.
Last Thursday I attended the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on child marriage. Afterwards, Katie sent me a version of her most recent blog post, which focused on the hearing. She”s such a force. I hope that one day perhaps I”ll have the insight that Katie has on issues such as maternal and child health. If you want to know about the history of the issues, the politics involved with the legislative process, the players, etc., I”m not the person to ask. At least not a month in. What I know is what I see. And on Thursday, I saw a lot.
Having lived in DC for the past ten years, I felt like Congress was something that I should just automatically understand. But truth be told, last week was my first experience with a Congressional hearing. It was an incredible experience. My first reaction walking into a standing-room only crowd (thanks to the great prep-work of all my CARE colleagues!) was one of excitement. The room buzzed with energy. A group of 30 or so school aged children from the Ethiopian Student Center in D.C. put a personal face to the issue as they lent their support. Throughout the hearing, the testimony given by CARE, UNICEF, ICRW and the Ambassador for Global Women”s Issues, Melanne Verveer, was moving, impactful and well-received. Stephanie Baric of CARE was particularly effective at driving home the message that there are solutions and that Congress must pass the bipartisan International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2009 (H.R. 2103/S.987) before the end of the 111th Congress. And Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, added a personal perspective as she told of her poignant journey from being engaged at age five to pursuing her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. She contrasted her life full of opportunity with those of her childhood friends in Kenya forced to marry and have children at a very young age and trapped in poverty.
The witnesses received a warm reception by the Commission. Congressman Jim McGovern, who also serves as the Commission”s chairman, opened the hearing by sharing his personal experiences of meeting child brides in Africa, and commended the panelists for their hard work on this critical issue. Congresswoman Betty McCollum, who has shown such great leadership in this arena, insisted that child marriage was “culturally sanctioned child exploitation’ and must come to an end. And Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee was downright frank when she said this about child marriage: “It is not culture, it is not custom. It is a modified version of slavery.’
I would say without a doubt that last week”s hearing was nothing short of a success. You can see some of the highlights on CARE”s Facebook page and my Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/nclarkCARE) Now is the time for us to act. I encourage you to become “one of those people.’ Learn about the issue. Contact your legislator and urge them to cosponsor and pass the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act. Share your feelings within your social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Sixty million girls around the world are depending on us.