Child marriage and early unions take place in every region of the world, across cultures, religions, and ethnicities.
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. Driven by gender inequality and prevailing social norms, child marriage and early unions put girls’ personal development and wellbeing at risk and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
CHILD MARRIAGE AND EARLY UNIONS ARE ROOTED IN GENDER INEQUALITY.
Child marriage is an issue that disproportionately affects girls. It is primarily driven by ideas of girls’ inferiority, and linked to a desire to control girls’ fertility, sexuality, and freedom. It is also fueled by factors including teenage pregnancy, poverty, family honor, and insecurity. Child marriage denies girls and young women their agency and the ability to realize their full potential.
THE CONSEQUENCES ARE DEVASTATING.
Child marriage affects a range of development outcomes.
Married girls are deprived of their basic rights to health, education, equality, non-discrimination, and living free from violence and exploitation. Child brides are at greater risk of experiencing a range of poor health outcomes, having children at younger ages, dropping out of school, earning less over their lifetimes, and living in poverty than their peers whom marry at later ages. These dynamics affect not only the girls themselves, but also their children, households, communities, and societies.
Married girls often have limited sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Many married girls are often unable to access education, information, or services on their sexual and reproductive health and rights. They also face increased risks of pregnancy—including unintended pregnancy—and childbirth complications leading to their, or their child’s, injury or death. Even in places where abortion is legal and available, adolescents, married or not, are often unable to access safe abortion services. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls globally.
It disproportionately affects the poorest families in the developing world.
Where poverty is acute, families may believe that marriage will secure their future. Giving a daughter in marriage can allow parents with scarce resources and alternatives to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe, and educate. Parents may also believe that marrying their daughter will provide her with security that they cannot provide. In communities where a dowry or ”bride price” is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families. And families of brides who pay the groom a dowry often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated.
Postponing marriage does not necessarily solve the problem.
The age and gender inequalities that shape girls’ lives before marriage continue to do so afterward. Programs and organizations that tackle both child marriage and its underlying drivers are more likely to be successful in creating lasting change.
BUT, PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE.
Local, national, and global actors have made larger commitments to ending this practice in the past decade.
A number of global, regional, and national campaigns and initiatives have raised awareness of this human rights abuse. This includes the introduction of a target on child marriage within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 5.3 calls for an end to child marriage by 2030.
More comprehensive actions are being taken.
Multilateral, bilateral, and national interventions have reduced the number of girls married by providing sexual and reproductive health education, changing laws and policies, advancing girls’ education, creating economic opportunities, and engaging communities to change social norms.
The total number of child marriages has fallen.
Largely due to reductions of the practice in South Asia and Ethiopia, the total number of child marriages taking place annually has declined from 15 million in 2014 to 12 million in 2017.
YET, THERE IS STILL MORE TO DO.
Progress has not been universal.
Though the global numbers have decreased, some countries have seen stalls and even increases in child marriage rates. Even in countries that have seen progress overall, rural and poor girls continue to face disproportionately higher rates of child marriage. With global population increases, the overall number of child brides will grow unless the rates of child marriage fall more quickly.
Child marriage looks different across contexts.
In many countries, the practice of child marriage is informal, making it difficult to fully understand the scale of the problem and to effectively prevent and respond to the issue. Community-based organizations (CBOs) are well-placed to understand their local contexts, what child marriages and early unions look like in their communities, and how to effectively respond.
To date there has been relatively low investment in CBOs and local movements.
While some donors do support local work to prevent and respond to child marriage and early unions, funding for CBOs is far lower than the need.
To eliminate child marriage, we need to accelerate change.
If the current rates of reduction continue, 17% of girls will be married before their 18th birthday in 2030. According to Girls Not Brides, if current trends on child marriage continue, 150 million more girls will be married in childhood by 2030, with devastating consequences for the whole world.
Ending child marriage is essential to ending poverty and inequality and improving health, education, nutrition, food security, and economic growth around the world.