Fact-checking claims about social justice, children

Actress and Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson launched the HeForShe campaign at the United Nations in New York last week but flubbed a statistic about child marriages. (Getty photo)
Actress and Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson launched the HeForShe campaign at the United Nations in New York last week but flubbed a statistic about child marriages. (Getty photo)

This week pundits put a spotlight on children. They talked about everything from hungry kids in America, to child brides and female genital mutilation around the globe. These are tough issues, but they can be quantified, and where there’s hard data, PunditFact can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Child hunger in the U.S.

On child hunger, the New York Post ran an op-ed that accused the group Feeding America of lying in its public service announcements. Feeding America is a large nonprofit that raises money and secures food donations for about 200 food banks nationwide. According to the op-ed writer, William Benson Huber, Feeding America was telling the public that "one in five kids is fighting starvation daily."

The ads, writes Huber, "inform us of a horror we’d otherwise think impossible: America has so failed its children that 17 million — one in five — don’t have enough to eat. Except that, enjoyable as all this self-loathing might seem, it’s simply a fairy tale."

But Huber’s accusation rested on a false premise. We could find no evidence that Feeding America ever said that children are starving, and Huber acknowledged that he was using his own words.

Huber said he did that based on a line he heard in a Feeding America PSA, "People say I’m a pretty good kid. Why, in a country as rich as America, should I have to go to bed hungry?"

"The words they use about going to bed hungry seems to me to be starving," Huber said.

But Feeding America denied it ever said that kids go to bed hungry, and Huber was unable to provide evidence of that either.

That said, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 1 percent of children went hungry last year because their families didn’t have the money to buy more food. For about 12 percent of children, there wasn’t enough money to buy a balanced meal.

The experts we talked to said hunger in America is complicated because most often, the biggest problem isn’t a lack of calories, but a lack of food with the nutrition kids need.

As such, Huber’s claim rates Pants on Fire.

Going global

Emma Watson, star of the Harry Potter films, gave a speech at the United Nations that called out to men to join the struggle for equal treatment of women. Watson spoke of many disadvantages women face, from less education to less pay. Then, at the very end of her speech, Watson said that if nothing is done, "15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children."

Anyone who marries under the age of 18 is considered to have married young. We found that Watson had used a garbled statistic and the practice of child marriage is actually far more common than her words would suggest.

According to an analysis from the United Nations Population Fund, current trends would lead to 140 million underage marriages of women by 2020.

The figure Watson used came closest to the number of girls and young women who would marry each year by 2030. However, the Population Fund had an estimate of 15.1 million per year, a bit less than Watson’s 15.5 million.

Buried in the data is one other important trend: The rate of child marriage is declining. Two World Bank economists showed that it has fallen by about 20 percent in the past 30 years. However, the total number of young women getting married is expected to rise due to a demographic bulge moving through the populations of the countries with the tradition of arranged marriages.

We rated Watson’s claim Half True.

‘A central African problem’

Comedian Bill Maher ignited a debate when he highlighted two Muslim countries, Egypt and Somalia, where female genital mutilation takes place at very high rates. The next day, religion professor Reza Aslan shot back that the practice has little to do with Islam and more to do with traditions rooted primarily in a band of nations that stretches across the center of Africa.

We wanted to see which factor, religion or location, played a larger role.

Female genital mutilation refers to procedures that remove, in part or in whole, external genitalia for a non-medical reason. International groups such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch condemn the practice. When performed, the procedure is usually done on young girls.

We found that seven of the top eight countries with very high rates of female circumcision are majority Muslim, including the "almost universal" levels in Somalia, Egypt, Guinea and Djibouti. But Eritrea is No. 5 among countries with high prevalence at 89 percent, and it is home to more Christians than Muslims.  Ethiopia, which is 63 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim, has a moderately high rate of 74 percent, making it No. 11 on the list.

So the countries in which female genital cutting is a practice are mostly Muslim, but they are not exclusively Muslim. Of the 29 countries tracked by UNICEF, 14 are home to more Christians than Muslims.

Experts say the practice stems from social pressure to conform to traditions passed down for centuries -- one that predates not just Islam but also Judaism and Christianity.

Aslan’s claim rates Mostly True.