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Nearly a year ago, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, D-MN, traveled to Bangladesh to evaluate U.S.-funded initiatives that impact the health, education and economic security of women and girls, especially efforts to prevent child marriage. She also co-sponsored House Resolution 6087, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, designed to protect the rights of girls in developing countries. Companion legislation has already passed in the Senate, and McCollum’s bill was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum visited Bangladesh in January.

On October 11 the world did something remarkable. Together, we celebrated International Day of the Girl Child – a day to recognize not only the basic human rights of young women but address the unique political, social and economic barriers faced by millions of girls around the world.  We know that when girls are valued, families, communities and nations thrive.

As a Member of Congress, I have been fortunate to visit many struggling countries and hear directly from women and girls. I’ve heard stories of anger and sadness about the stigma faced by girls simply because of their gender; I’ve also witnessed stories of hope and progress.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Bangladesh and listened as students, mothers and community leaders told me of their work to prevent child marriage. While progress has been made, there is still work that must be done to end this human rights abuse. As a global community, we must commit to ensuring girls, their families and communities have access to the support and services they need to be healthy, educated and safe. We must stand firm that it is unacceptable that in the 21st century, millions of young girls are forced to “marry” men decades older.

Nearly every day, 25,000 girls – some as young as 7 or 8 years old – are sold to men old enough to be their father or grandfather. These girls are almost always doomed to a life of poverty, abuse, poor health and limited economic opportunities.  Soon after she “marries,” a child bride will most likely get pregnant before her body has completed puberty.  Proper prenatal care is usually nonexistent, making her pregnancy and childbirth literal threats to her life.  According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy and childbirth complications are a leading cause of death for adolescent girls  in developing nations.

It is time for the global community to stand up for the millions of young girls who deserve the opportunity to grow, learn and achieve. Human rights leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel have called on the United States to work with the international community and help provide the resources, tools and support needed to stop this abhorrent practice.  On Oct. 10, the day before the International Day of the Girl Child, Secretary Clinton committed the United States to this fight because even though child marriage isn’t prevalent in the United States, its presence across the globe impacts our nation’s security and success.

Promoting gender equality and protecting basic freedoms are essential to productive, thriving nations.  The United States must take a stand in the fight against child marriage.  We invite other countries to do the same, on the Day of the Girl Child and every day of the year.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District.  She serves on the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.