Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Last Thursday, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing titled “Targeting Girls in the Name of Tradition: Child Marriage.” The hearing was chaired by Congressman Jim McGovern, who co-chairs the commission with Congressman Frank Wolf. “Education” was the buzz word on everyone’s lips throughout the 2-½-hour session, and given the integral role that education can play in bettering the lives of women and girls, it’s not hard to understand why.

Under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department has focused on the empowerment of women and girls as integral to the realization of many international development and U.S. foreign policy goals. Secretary Clinton highlighted her personal interest and commitment as First Lady during the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women when she famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights.” This sentiment is echoed in a recent book penned by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (who spoke at the 2010 NAFSA Annual Conference in Kansas City) titled Half the Sky, which posits that the path to ending extremism and poverty is through the empowerment of women and girls.

Those who testified at the hearing reinforced the importance of empowering women and girls worldwide. Ambassador Melanne Verveer of the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the U.S. Department of State spoke to the importance of engaging leaders in the community to engage and inspire young girls, and Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, spoke to the need of strong female models in school as well as in the community at large.

The challenges posed by the attempts to abandon child marriage, of course, seem insurmountable. Ambassador Verveer noted that child marriage is prevalent in 64 out of 182 countries in the world. Francesca Moneti, from UNICEF, testified that a child born to a mother 19 years or younger is 60% more likely to die than babies born to women in their 20’s and 30’s. Ambassador Verveer also spoke more generally about the negative consequences of child marriage, including domestic violence, marital rape, early childbirth (leading to health complications for both mother and child) and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevalence, especially HIV/AIDS. Ms. Ntaiya, whose Kakenya Center for Excellence was a beneficiary of NAFSA’s recent Make a Difference Giving Campaign, spoke movingly about her personal experience growing up in a small Masai village in Kenya and how by staying in school she managed to escape a marriage that had been arranged on her behalf at the age of five.

How best to empower women and girls to break the cycle of this systemic practice? Education, education, education. While the importance of a primary education for girls was highlighted, many also stressed the importance of secondary and higher education as paramount in ensuring that girls did not find themselves without options upon completion of their primary school years, which usually occurs at age thirteen. Ms. Anju Malhotra, vice president of research, innovation and programs at the International Center for Research on Women, insisted that the “continuation of schooling is the single largest protector against child marriage.”

Rhetoric about the importance of education in the achievement of development goals has been commonplace for many years now, but the shift in focus to the education of women and girls is relatively new. The empowerment of women and girls through continued education is a critical component in the ongoing global struggle to alleviate poverty and fulfill the international development goals set forth by the United Nations and other international bodies. Education equals choice and it is essential currency in accessing the multiple paths one’s life can take.