By Akanimo Sampson
In the spirit of this year’s Valentine’s Day which was celebrated globally on Friday, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is calling on the world to prioritise ending child marriage.
Around the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated as a time of joy and romance. Yet for millions, fairy tales of love and marriage are just that – fiction.
Hundreds of millions of women and girls alive today were married off while still children. Many were exposed to violence, forced from school and pushed into premature parenthood.
Child marriage is a tragedy for the individuals it ensnares – often the most vulnerable, impoverished and marginalised girls. But it is also bad for communities and societies as a whole, locking child brides and their families in a cycle of poverty that can persist across generations.
Ending child marriage – enabling girls to finish school, delay motherhood, find decent work and fulfil their potential – could generate billions of dollars in earnings and productivity, studies find.
Below are seven little-known facts about child marriage. Better awareness of the problem, its pervasiveness across the world, and its consequences may help leaders – as well as young people themselves – end the practice once and for all.
Child marriage is common. It takes place in every corner of the world
More than 650 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Globally, 21 percent of young women, 20-24 years old, were child brides. And while child marriage is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, it also takes place in high-income countries.
Examples of this harmful practice can be found everywhere.
In Nicaragua, for instance, Irayda ran away from an abusive home to get married at age 14. “Before I was 15, I was already pregnant,” she told UNFPA.
As is often the case, the responsibilities of married life and parenthood pushed her out of school, limiting future options for herself and her daughter. “I would have liked to stay in school instead of dropping out,” she said.
Advocates are tackling this practice everywhere, too – despite resistance. In North Macedonia, Nesime Salioska’s organisation stopped a wedding between a 16-year-old girl and the adult man who had fathered her baby. It was an uphill battle, with many officials refusing to take action. “The notion is that this issue is part of the tradition and they should not interfere”, she said. In the end, she said, “we stopped a life being stolen.”
Progress is being made – but not enough
First, the good news: Global child marriage rates are slowly falling. Around 2000, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. In 2017, this number was just over one in five. South Asia, home to the largest number of child brides, has seen some of the most dramatic progress. In that region, a girl’s risk of marrying before age 18 fell by more than a third in just a decade, thanks to investments made in girls’ education and welfare.
But there is also bad news: Unless such efforts are accelerated, reductions in the number of girls being married off will not keep pace with population growth. Today, some of the fastest population growth is seen in places where child marriage remains widespread, such as West and Central Africa. And in other places, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, child marriage rates have remained stagnant for decades. Without urgent efforts, the total number of child marriages will likely increase by 2030.
The cost of ending child marriage is surprisingly affordable
The solutions are straightforward and affordable. In November 2019, UNFPA released a joint study with the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Victoria University, the University of Washington and Avenir Health, assessing the price tag to end child marriage in 68 countries that account for about 90 percent of the phenomenon. Ending child marriage in these countries by 2030, researchers concluded, would cost just $35 billion.
In other words, it costs roughly $600 to spare each child bride — equivalent to the bill for a single night in a luxury hotel.
The $35 billion investment — in educational interventions, empowerment initiatives, and programmes that change social norms around child marriage — would avert approximately 58 million child marriages. On top of that, girls who escape early marriage will be able to “make a more productive contribution to the household enterprise”, yielding significant benefits to their communities over time.
Both boys and girls may be married off as children – but girls are much more vulnerable to the practice.
Boys can be – and are – married off as children. UNFPA figures evaluating data from 82 low- and middle-income countries show that 1 in 25 boys, or 3.8 percent, marry before age 18.
“I was a child,” a young man in Yemen told UNFPA about getting married at age 16. His wife was 13. “I could not make my own decisions”, he explained. “My father ordered me to marry, so I got married.”
Marriage at such an early age foists both boys and girls into adult responsibilities before they are ready. All children in these precarious circumstances are less able to advocate for themselves and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Yet, there are harms that accrue to girls much more frequently than to boys. Studies show child brides are especially at risk of violence – from their spouses, in-laws, or even from their own families.
In Uganda, 15-year-old Abura* refused to marry the man her father selected for her. Her father and brother beat her and then locked her in with her husband, who raped her. She ran away, surviving in the bush for three weeks before she returned home, where her brother beat her again. Eventually, she escaped to a shelter for survivors of violence.
Child brides are also more likely to become pregnant before their bodies are mature, increasing the risk of serious complications.
And girls are much more likely to be married off when they are very young. While the majority of child marriages take place among 16- and 17-year-olds, there are many countries where girls are commonly married at or before age 15. Among boys, these very early marriages are virtually non-existent (0.3 percent).
Child marriage is almost universally banned
Two of the most broadly endorsed human rights agreements in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, prohibit child marriage. Together, these treaties have been signed or ratified by every country except one.
Yet around the world, there are national or local laws that enable different interpretations of this agreed principle. Many countries permit child marriage to take place with parental consent or under religious or customary law, for example.
Bertha was a child bride in Malawi. Malawi has laws prohibiting marriage before age 18, but for a time these laws conflicted with language in the Constitution permitting marriage to take place earlier with parental consent. The Constitution was amended last year to eliminate this contradiction.
“I experienced serious complications while giving birth to my daughter because my body was not mature enough for childbirth,” Bertha told UNFPA, then 17 years old and divorced. “Many girls like me want to be in school and not married,” she said.
Even in places where child marriage is clearly illegal, enforcement can be a problem. Around the world, many marriages are not legally registered, for example.
Child marriage and teen pregnancy are closely – and dangerously – linked
Child marriage is often a precursor to early pregnancy. In developing countries, 9 out of 10 adolescent births take place among girls who are already married. These early pregnancies pose serious health risks to girls whose bodies may not be developed enough for motherhood. Globally, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
Ameena, in Yemen, became pregnant soon after she was married at age 15. “I did not know what was happening to me during my first pregnancy. It felt that something scary was happening inside my stomach. I damaged my spine because of this early pregnancy. I was not ready to give birth. I was not ready to have a husband. I did not know what marriage was.”
Sometimes, these injuries can be emotional, exacerbated by girls’ exposure to violence. Freshta*, in Afghanistan, experienced a serious post-partum mental illness after she was married off at 12 to a man in his 60s. “I got pregnant and gave birth. He didn’t allow me to see my baby, hug him, kiss him and feed him”, she told UNFPA. “I wanted to finish my life because of all the torture.”
Early pregnancy also puts girls at risk of being married off. Girls may be forced to marry the father of their baby – even a rapist – to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.
In Kenya, Eunice became pregnant in 2013, and her father tried to marry her off to the baby’s father. When the man refused, his own elderly father decided to marry her instead. Eunice tried to run away, but she was caught. “They really beat me up, a beating like I had never experienced in my entire life. I really suffered and cried a lot”, she told UNFPA. Eventually, her mother found her and reported the abuse to the police.
Empowering girls is critical to ending child marriage
Many changes are required to end child marriage, including strengthening and enforcing laws against the practice, advancing gender equality and ensuring community commitment to girls’ rights.
But young people must also be empowered to know and claim their rights. This means they must be given accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health, opportunities for education and skills development, and platforms for participation and engagement in community and civic life.
It may seem simple, but such information and opportunities can be life-changing. When vulnerable young people are empowered with knowledge, they can advocate for themselves, and even persuade their families to cancel or delay engagements.
UNFPA works with partners and communities around the world to educate and empower girls, and to raise awareness in communities about the dangers of child marriage.
Many of these girls have become advocates in their own right.
In Nepal, 16-year-old Kabita belongs to an adolescent girls’ group supported by the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. “If I quit my studies, I will be married off immediately,” she said. As a result, she is determined to stay in school. “A brighter future starts with education”, she said.
The Global Programme works in 12 countries with a high prevalence of child marriage. Between 2016 and 2019, some 7.2 million girls were empowered through the Global Programme, and more than 30 million people were reached through media messages, community dialogues and other advocacy.
In Zambia, Linda learned about her rights at a UNFPA-supported safe space for girls. “I now know that child marriage is wrong,” she said in an interview when she was 12.
She added, “I see a lot of girls get married early, and soon afterward become pregnant or become infected with HIV. This should not be happening in our communities because girls should be in school and working hard to become teachers, doctors and lawyers and any other career goals they want to achieve.”
What is child marriage?
Child marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. Although this definition sounds straightforward, the realities of child marriage can be complicated. Both the words “child” and “marriage” are sometimes interpreted differently.
The internationally recognised definition of a child – established by the Convention of the Rights of the Child, one of the most universally endorsed and widely ratified treaties in history – is “every human being below the age of 18 years”. This is also the legal definition used in most parts of the world.
But in a small number of countries, adulthood, or the “age of majority” may be reached before age 18. (The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes an exception for national laws recognising an earlier age of majority.) Some countries and cultures consider adulthood a state achieved upon marriage – for example, countries where full age means the age of 18 years and above, and any married woman is deemed to be of full age, even if she is under 18. And other countries have an older minimum age of marriage, such as Nepal, where the law requires both men and women to be at least 20 when they marry.
The concept of marriage also varies – it can be formal or informal, governed by civil law, common law or religious law, or simply be a customary practice. In many parts of the world, for example, marriages may be recognized by the community without legal registration, marked simply with a ceremony. In countries where polygamous marriage is not permitted by civil law, second and third marriages often take place without formal registration.
Major surveys try to account for this variation when measuring child marriage. Multiple Indicators Cluster Surveys and Demographic Health Surveys, for example, collect information on the date and age at which women and men were married or first started living with their first spouses or partners.
Regardless of these varying definitions, child marriage is a serious human rights violation that directly threatens the lives, health, safety and education of girls and boys, limiting their future prospects.
Why does child marriage happen?
It can be hard to imagine why someone would choose to have their child married off. But for millions of people, child marriage can seem like the best – or only – option.
Daughters are frequently seen as burdens or commodities because of pervasive gender inequality. Impoverished parents often believe marriage will secure a daughter’s future by making a husband or his family responsible for her care. This may be the case when parents face economic hardships or when girls are forced by poverty or circumstance to drop out of school. In places where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, creating an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off early. In places where the groom’s family pays a bride price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.
Parents – especially in humanitarian crises – often view marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual violence. Child marriage rates have been known to increase during the chaos of war, as families endure both economic instability and fear of violence. Yet child marriage itself leads to girls experiencing high levels of sexual, physical and emotional violence from their intimate partners.
Although most adolescent pregnancies in the developing world take place among girls who are already married, in some places, teenage pregnancy prompts parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in both wealthy and poor countries where communities consider pregnancy outside of marriage to be shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.
And not all child marriages are the result of parents’ or guardians’ decisions. Often, adolescents themselves decide to marry their partner, whether a peer or an older individual. These marriages may be a way to exercise independence, leave home or escape difficult circumstances, including desperate poverty or family violence. Restrictions on adolescent sexuality outside of marriage also drive some adolescents to see marriage as the only way to be sexually active.
In most cases, child marriage is the result of girls and families having few choices. Overwhelmingly, when young people have a choice, they marry later.
How common is child marriage?
Child marriage is actually very common.
More than 650 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Twenty-one percent of young women (20-24 years old) around the world were child brides. And while child marriage is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, it also takes place in high-income countries.
There is good news: global child marriage rates are slowly falling. Around 2000, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. In 2017, this number was just over one in five. Rates of child marriage before age 15 also fell, from 11 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2017.
Still, progress has been uneven and child marriage is not declining fast enough. Because of population growth in regions where child marriage is more prevalent, such as West and Central Africa, the rate of decline is slow and the total number of child marriages is projected to increase by 2030. To change this, we must accelerate our actions to end child marriage.
South Asia has seen dramatic declines in child marriage over the last decade, and now the global burden of child marriage is shifting to sub-Saharan Africa. Of the most recently married child brides, close to 1 in 3 are now in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 1 in 5 a decade ago. While sub-Saharan Africa still has some of the highest rates of child marriage, South Asia is home to the largest number of child brides.
Where child marriage happen
Child marriage takes place all over the world.
It even happens in developed countries – including the United States and the United Kingdom. Many people assume that when child marriage takes place in affluent countries, it only involves immigrant communities. This is not the case. Child marriage is known to take place across a wide range of communities, ethnicities and religions.
Still, child marriage is much more common in the developing world because one of the main driving factors is poverty.
The highest rates of child marriage are seen in West and Central Africa, where over four in ten girls were married before age 18. In terms of sheer numbers, South Asia is home to the largest numbers of child brides.
Children involved in child marriages
Children can be married off at any age. The most common ages at which children are married are 16 and 17.
Marriages that take place before age 15 are considered “very early marriages.” These marriages have a particularly negative impact on girls, interrupting their education earlier and jeopardizing their health more acutely. The prevalence of these marriages varies by country. UNFPA has found that very early marriages constitute 30 percent or more of child marriages in 14 out of 82 low- and middle-income countries for which data are available.
In circumstances where parents are under enormous pressure to marry off their daughters – for those living in extreme poverty or in conflict settings, for instance – marriages have been reported among girls around 11 or 12 because girls are seen both as being ready for marriage and at risk of sexual violence.
In some cases, children are as young as five when they are married, although this is rare. Extremely young brides and grooms are sometimes married in ceremony only but live with their own parents until they are adolescents.
The usual age difference between a child bride and her husband
Children who are married – and they are overwhelmingly girls – tend to have spouses who are much older. When this is the case, the girls are generally more vulnerable and less able to advocate for their needs and desires.
Demographic and health surveys (tools for collecting key health and demographic information) even track age differences between girls and their spouses. This information is used as one of a variety of factors to evaluate the well-being of girls in a community.
Still, child marriages are not always unions between girls and much-older men. In some communities, it is customary to wed girls and boys who are similar ages. And there are also cases of adolescents marrying one another voluntarily – sometimes called “love marriages” – in unions that are forbidden by family members. Such marriages can put young people at risk of retributive violence, and because the spouses often run away, they may lack economic support or face social isolation.
Are boys ever married off while still children?
While the vast majority of child marriages involve girls, boys can also be married off.
However, UNFPA has found that in all 82 low- and middle-income countries for which there are data, the prevalence of child marriage is significantly lower for males than females. Only 1 in 25 boys (3.8 per cent) marry before they reach age 18, while marriage before age 15 is practically non-existent in boys (0.3 per cent). Only 10 countries have a child marriage prevalence for boys over 10 per cent – including 16 per cent in Madagascar; 14 per cent in Pakistan; 13 per cent in Central African Republic and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic; 12 per cent in Comoros, Honduras, the Marshall Islands and Nauru; 11 per cent in Nepal; and 10 per cent in Guatemala.
Child marriage rates for boys are very low even in countries where child marriage among girls is relatively high.
Consequences of child marriage
Child marriage undermines children’s human rights and derails their lives and future opportunities.
At the most basic level, it denies children the right to choose – with full and free consent and without coercion or fear – whom to marry, and when. This is one of life’s most important decisions.
And there are additional consequences. Child brides are more likely to become pregnant before their bodies are mature, increasing the risks of both maternal and newborn death and morbidity. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. In these countries, where access to sexual and reproductive health services is generally low, complications from pregnancy and childbirth can be deadly. In fact, globally, these complications are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
Children who are married off are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Contributing to this problem is the fact that girls who have dropped out of school are more vulnerable to child marriage and less likely to be equipped with information about protecting themselves from STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
Child brides are particularly vulnerable to abuse. They are less able to advocate for themselves and less able to escape abusive relationships. Mental illness is common among child brides, for example, due to their experience of violence. Girls who marry young are also more likely to think that wife-beating is justified than women who marry later in life.
Married girls rarely enrol in school because they are expected to assume significant domestic responsibilities. This limits their future potential and makes it harder for their families to escape poverty.
Lack of education and empowerment also mean girls are less able to advocate for the well-being of their own children. The children of child brides have higher mortality rates, worse nutritional outcomes, and tend to be less educated.
Cumulatively, child marriage takes an enormous toll on communities, workforces and economies, and the loss is carried over generations.
Child marriage is almost universally banned.
Two of the most broadly endorsed human rights agreements in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), address child marriage. The CRC establishes the internationally agreed definition of a child, and the right of children to health, education, protection from violence, and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, all of which are violated by child marriage.
The CEDAW states unequivocally: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” Together, these treaties have been signed or ratified by every country except one.
Still, there are some national laws that enable different interpretations of this agreed principle. Many countries permit exceptions with parental consent or under religious or customary law.
Even in places where child marriage is clearly legally prohibited, enforcement can be complicated by the fact that many child marriages – and many marriages in general – are not legally registered.
UNFPA works with governments to advocate stronger laws, policies and enforcement mechanisms to end child marriage. UNFPA is also working with men, women and young people, including adolescent girls, to address the root causes of child marriage – continuing poverty, gender inequality, and fears and taboos around adolescent sexuality. UNFPA also supports married girls and those in unions, particularly with sexual and reproductive health services and essential services responding to gender-based violence.
Religious, cultural traditions around child marriage
There are no major religious traditions that require child marriage. Yet child marriage persists, across many cultures and religions. But it would be wrong to say that child marriage warrants protection as a cultural or religious practice. Governments around the world have overwhelmingly, and independently, decided that child marriage is a grave violation of human rights.
In places where child marriage persists, evidence about its harms is usually convincing to policymakers, community leaders, religious leaders and parents. In fact, there are many examples of cultural and religious leaders taking a strong stance against child marriage. But prohibitions themselves are not always sufficient; because child marriage is typically the result of a lack of choices, and because it is viewed as the norm, families and communities also need alternatives.
How to end child marriage
Laws prohibiting child marriage need to be enacted, strengthened and enforced. And more attention is needed to related laws such as on bride price and dowry, marital rape, birth and marriage registration, and mandatory schooling.
But laws alone will not end child marriage.
Fundamentally, gender equality must be advanced. When educating daughters is considered as worthwhile as educating sons, when communities – both men and women – give equal weight to the future potential of girls and boys, there is less motivation to engage in child marriage.
In addition, adolescent girls and boys are less likely to want to marry before age 18 when they are empowered with information about their sexual and reproductive health and when they are able to decide freely and responsibly matters related to their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.
Improved circumstances for families can also reduce the incentive to marry off children. Families, including girls, need to be able to live in peace and move in safety. And extreme poverty, which drives so many child marriages, must be eradicated. For this, many changes are needed, including social safety nets for girls and their families, as well as improved access to education, health services and economic opportunities.
Girls can play an important role in ending child marriage – when they know their rights and have access to the right information and opportunities. UNFPA has seen that when girls are empowered to claim their rights, they can persuade their families to delay or cancel engagements. Instead, they can stay in school, gain skills and support their families economically. Many have been inspired to become advocates and leaders in their communities.
UNFPA and its partners are now working to bring these changes to the most vulnerable girls. The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is reaching girls in 12 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and mobilizing a movement against child marriage globally. This programme is increasing girls’ access to education and health-care services, and it is educating parents and communities on the consequences of child marriage. It is also contributing to a more girl-friendly legal and policy environment, and generating data on what works to address child marriage and related issues such as adolescent pregnancy, gender-based violence and HIV.
In November 2019, UNFPA released a joint study with the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Victoria University, the University of Washington and Avenir Health, assessing the price tag to end child marriage in 68 countries that account for about 90 per cent of the phenomenon. Ending child marriage in these countries by 2030, researchers concluded, is surprisingly affordable: it would cost just $35 billion.
In other words, it costs roughly $600 to spare each child bride, equivalent to the bill for a single night in a luxury hotel.
The $35 billion investment – in educational interventions, empowerment initiatives, and programmes that change social norms around child marriage – would avert approximately 58 million child marriages. On top of that, girls who escape early marriage will be able to “make a more productive contribution to the household enterprise”, yielding significant benefits to their communities over time.
Difference between child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage
People occasionally refer to the term “child, early and forced marriage.” This creates the impression that these terms are distinct. In fact, they are overlapping.
Child marriage and early marriage largely refer to the same thing: marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. However, early marriage is also sometimes used to describe marriages in which one or both spouses are 18 or older, but with a compromised ability to grant consent. For example, the marriage of a 19-year-old who is not physically or emotionally mature, or who does not have sufficient information about her choices, would be considered an early marriage.
Forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses do not give full and free consent, regardless of age. Forced marriage can also refer to a union in which one or both spouses are unable to end or leave the marriage.
Because in most countries children are not considered able to give legal consent, all child marriages are sometimes considered forced marriages. However, there are many instances of two adolescents under the age of 18 marrying each other voluntarily.
Teen pregnancy and child marriage
In the developing world, around 90 per cent of adolescent births (those among girls 15-19 years old) take place among girls who are already married. This means that child marriage is often a precursor to early pregnancy, which poses a host of health risks to girls whose bodies may not yet be mature enough for motherhood. Globally, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
In some places, the causality is reversed. While most adolescent childbearing occurs within marriage, it is not uncommon for first births that occur within marriage to be the result of premarital conceptions. The median proportion of adolescent girls whose pregnancy preceded marriage but resulted in a birth within marriage is 18 per cent; this phenomenon is more common in Africa than in other regions. Teenage pregnancy is often an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in countries all over the world where communities see pregnancy outside marriage as shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.