Here’s one way to view the Texas trial of Warren Jeffs, the polygamist-sect leader accused of sexual assault and marrying two teenage girls: Even America is not immune to the global problem of child marriage and should use this case to support campaigns to end it.
Underage marriage has long been common in Mr. Jeffs’s secretive group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To date, seven FLDS men have been convicted on the same charges facing Jeffs.
Worldwide, though, more than 60 million girls end up as child brides, meaning they marry before the age of 18, which is classified as underage by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Most are forced into these awkward arrangements, usually by poor, rural parents who essentially sell off daughters for a dowry. The damage to the girl in marrying an older man, both physically and emotionally, remains largely hidden.
The practice – which amounts to rape – is deeply entrenched and not associated with any one religion, according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
While the prevalence of child marriage seems to be declining – a result of information campaigns, education for girls, and rising prosperity – the ICRW estimates that 25,000 girls will be married every day for the next 10 years – some as young as 8. In some countries, more than half are coerced into saying some form of “I do.” Many are betrothed in the cradle.
The slow pace to outlaw child marriage – or enforce laws on the books – is reflected in a current struggle by Saudi Arabia’s justice ministry to set a minimum age for marriage. The proposal, which didn’t specify an age, was openly opposed this month by a powerful Muslim cleric, Saleh al-Fawzan. He issued a religious ruling against it, citing a Quran passage about the prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a 6-year-old girl. (In 2003, Dr. Fawzan also issued a fatwa that “slavery is a part of Islam.”)
In the conservative kingdom, the monarchy grants much authority to the Islamic clergy and its interpretation of sharia law, especially over social matters. The ministry, however, appears ready to stand up to the cleric, with Saudi media on its side.
The Saudi Human Rights Commission supports the government effort, stating that a girl “needs to be cared for by her family, pursue her education and enjoy her childhood.” And recently a Saudi court granted a divorce to a 12-year-old girl from her 80-year-old husband.
Each country must find its own methods of ending child marriage. In India, where the practice may be the largest in the world, many experiments are being tried, such as one that promises money to parents if they allow girls to reach the age of 18 without marrying.
Such efforts deserve US support. One way is for Congress to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate called the “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act.” It would reorient foreign aid to provide more educational and economic opportunity to girls who face threats of early marriage, while pushing legal reforms as well.
As FLDS trials reveal, the innocence of young girls needs special attention – and protection – in any society.