Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage
Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriage, one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will probably be married before they are 18. One out of nine girls will be married before their 15th birthday. Most of these girls are poor, less-educated, and living in rural areas. Over 67 million women 20-24 year old in 2010 had been married as girls. Half were in Asia, one-fifth in Africa. In the next decade 14.2 million girls under 18 will be married every year. This will rise to an average of 15.1 million girls a year, starting in 2021 until 2030, if present trends continue.
While most countries allow girls to marry before they turn 18 with parental or other consent, poverty often underlies child marriage. Humanitarian crises exacerbate girls’ vulnerability. Some parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ future, while others see their daughters as a burden or even a commodity. Child marriage stands in the way of ensuring that girls have healthy and productive lives. Child marriage directly threatens health and wellbeing: complications from pregnancy and childbirth together are the main cause of death among adolescent girls 15-19 in developing countries.
Reaching puberty should mark the beginning of a gradual transition to a healthy and productive adulthood. Instead, for many girls, puberty marks an accelerating trajectory into inequality. Child marriage is a primary source of this, curtailing a critical period for growth, learning, identity formation and experimentation: each of which is essential if maturation into fully rounded human beings is to be unhindered.
International conventions declare that child marriage is a violation of human rights because it denies girls the right to decide when and with whom to marry. This report is intended to help policymakers prevent this violation of girls’ rights. It summarizes available data and evidence, while offering advice on the thicket of issues involved, and suggests prioritized actions to reduce and eventually eliminate child marriage.
If nothing changes, developing countries will witness an increase in child marriage: 142 million child marriages in 2011-2020 and 151 million in the subsequent decade. As the numbers of girls who are married as children grows, the numbers of children bearing children will increase and deaths among girls will rise. Given the time lag in the impacts of changing population dynamics, even a reduced rate of child marriage, will mean that absolute numbers may grow for some time ahead.
It is urgent therefore that social norms that serve to legitimate child marriage change. These can and do start to change, once parents and communities understand the harm that child marriage does and once they are able to identify alternatives that discourage and eventually will end the practice. Promising strategies for change are in evidence but they need more investment.
Ending child marriage will help countries reach the Millennium Development Goals, and should be a high priority in the post-2015 development agenda. Each country should collect and analyze its own data to help target geographic “hotspot” areas where high proportions and numbers of girls are at risk. Policies and programmes should be designed accordingly. Policies are needed across sectors to delay marriage, including raising the legal minimum age at marriage to 18, ensuring that girls go to school and attend beyond primary level, addressing underlying factors perpetuating the practice, identifying alternatives and creating opportunities for girls, and reaching out to communities to support these moves. Girls need, education, health, social and livelihood skills to become fully empowered citizens. Most immediately important is helping already married girls to avoid early pregnancy and when pregnant have access to appropriate care during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum (including access to family planning).