My daughter, who recently turned 11, will be graduating from fifth grade in a few weeks. After the summer break, she will continue on to middle school. But for 34 million girls in our world today, the completion of primary school likely marked the end of formal education. It may even have meant that it was time for her to be married.
When I visited the classroom in the Peruvian highlands that is pictured above, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community. He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade. In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away. Most of the girls won’t go. It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go. Besides, most of them will be married soon.”
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. More than 1 in 3 – or some 250 million – were married before the age of 15. Every year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That averages out to about 28 girls a minute.
Here are a few basic facts that everyone needs to know about child marriage.
1. Child marriage, also called “child, early and forced marriage”, is a formal marriage or informal union before the age 18. Child marriage also affect boys, but the number of girls who enter into child marriage is disproportionately higher.
2. Child marriage occurs in many countries throughout the world and is practiced by members of many religions. UNICEF reports that rates of child marriage are highest in South Asia, where nearly half of all girls marry before age 18; about one in six were married or in union before age 15. This is followed by West and Central Africa, then Eastern and Southern Africa, where 42 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood.
3. Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality. Child marriage is a harmful traditional practice in which a girl child is valued less than a boy by her family and community. Child marriage is also happens because of patriarchal values, including the desire to control female sexuality and reproduction. According to UNICEF,
Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden.
4. Girls from poor families are almost twice as likely to marry young as girls from families with more economic security. Not only are girls from poor families more likely to become child brides, but they’re also more likely to remain poor. Yet, in the context of poverty, families may be acting in what they believe is the best interest of their child by marrying their daughter off at a young age
5. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school. Conversely, girls who stay in school are less likely to marry and have children early and more likely to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Educating adolescent girls has been a critical factor in increasing the age of marriage in a number of developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.
6. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence. The International Center for Research on Women reports that child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
7. Child marriage results in girls having babies before they are physically or emotionally ready, often with serious health consequences. According to the World Health Organization, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the second highest cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 around the world. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. The infants of young teenage girls are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. And in developing countries, 90% of adolescent pregnancies are among married girls
8. Girls who marry before 18 often face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience.
9. Child marriage rates increase in the context of conflict and natural disasters. Save The Children has documented that the proportion of registered marriages where the bride was under 18 in the Syrian refugee community in Jordan rose from 12% in 2011 (roughly the same as the figure in pre-war Syria) more than doubled to 25% by 2013.6 The number of Syrian boys registered as married in 2011 and 2012 in Jordan is far lower, suggesting that girls are being married off to older men. Floods increased child marriage in Bangladesh and there is concern that the 2015 earthquakes have increased child marriage in Nepal.
10. Despite laws against it, the practice of child marriage remains widespread. Child marriage is technically illegal in many countries that have changed their laws to comply with the international standard of 18 as the age of marriage for both boys and girls. Social norms can be more challenging to change. In Ethiopia, for example, the legal age of marriage is 18, but nearly one in five girls are married before they turn 15.
11. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals include a greater commitment to ending child marriage. Goal 5 committed to “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. Part of that commitment was a pledge to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages”.
12. Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at multiple levels. Evidenced collected by the ICRW shows that it requires: 1) Empowering girls with information, skills and support networks; 2) Educating and mobilizing parents and community members; 3) Enhancing the accessibility and quality of formal schooling for girls; 4) Offering economic support and incentives for girls and their families; and 5) Fostering an enabling legal and policy framework.
For more information, resources, and ways to take action, see: