By Froma Harrop
The practice of marrying young girls to older men persists in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. It is a concern. But need it be America's concern and, more to the point, America's business to stop?
The answer is yes, according to a new Council on Foreign Relations report. Ending child marriage, author Rachel B. Vogelstein states, "is a strategic imperative that will further critical U.S. foreign policy interests."
Is it? Do we need a global crusade to end a custom already in decline and generally limited to impoverished rural areas? Perhaps it is more in our interests to stay out of the business of telling foreigners how they should regulate marriage. Americans have a long history of trying to make everyone just like us. In the 1820s, New England missionaries sought to save Hawaiian souls by banning the hula. In the 2000s, America embarked on war to bestow democracy's blessings on Iraq. These ventures, usually done in the name of the national interest, rarely work out as planned.
The reauthorized Violence Against Women Act orders the secretary of state to "establish and implement a multi-year, multi-sectoral strategy to prevent child marriage" and so on. Here we go.
Now Vogelstein makes some compelling arguments. Child marriage slows a country's economic development by stunting girls' education. There's the serious question of human rights: Girls should have the power to direct their own future. But then there's her iffier claim that the "success of U.S. efforts to foster development, prosperity and stability will grow if this persistent practice comes to an end." Even if valid, achieving these good results should be things the countries themselves want.
Which brings us to India. India is home to nearly half the world's child brides, a product of the tradition's roots in South Asia and India's huge population. India is also a surging world economic power, full of educated women, some of whom run the country. In 2006, it passed a Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. And the incidence of child marriage there has already fallen sharply from 26 percent in 1999 to 18 percent in 2011.
Recent hideous rape cases have brought massive protests to India's streets. The people there seem perfectly capable of addressing aspects of their culture they don't like.
Despite the progress, Vogelstein complains that "some Indian laws continue to establish the age of majority at 14," rather than at 18. So, should the State Department be lecturing other countries on how to define a minor? Let's turn the mirror around, shall we? Let's count the number of young American teens - some age 15 and under - now having babies, and without the marriage part.
Last month, a 5-year-old boy in Kentucky shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a rifle given him as a present. Putting real guns in the hands of little kids is apparently common in some parts of this land.
"It's a normal way of life, and it's not just in Kentucky, it's rural America," a Cumberland County judge explained to a baffled world media.
That same week, an 8-year-old in Alaska killed his 5-year-old sister with a gun. Did America's leaders launch a campaign to change the custom of arming children? It did not, as much as it should have.
The point is, the United States should carefully pick and choose the moral imperatives it wants to push on others. We're rather advanced on dignity-of-women issues. But where's the urgency for us to "fix" old cultures not our own?
Let others catch up. Changing their ways on child marriage may benefit them. It's not for us to tell them to.