There is a strong link between poverty and child marriage. The poorest girls and women in India and the Dominican Republic marry on average four years earlier than the wealthiest, and in the least developed countries in the world, almost half of all girls are married before reaching adulthood.
Child marriage in India is alarmingly prevalent – half of all child brides in the world live in South Asia and one third of those are in India.
While there are countries that specify a minimum age for people to legally marry, often cultural and religious factors influence social acceptance of child marriage.
Bangladesh, for example, is a country that has over four million child brides, despite the fact that the legal minimum age to marry there is 18. The practice is deeply rooted and largely accepted in society.
Child marriage has a devastating impact on young girls. They are robbed of their childhood, face a much higher risk of abuse and health complications and are often prevented from attending school.
3. Why does child marriage happen and why is it so harmful?
The causes of child marriage are complex and varied, motivated by different factors across communities and regions – sometimes, even within the same country.
However, it is most closely linked with low levels of economic development. Overwhelmingly, child brides come from the world’s most impoverished nations.
Within these contexts, girls (and women) aren’t seen as potential wage earners. Rather, they are financial burdens to their families and consequently, less valuable than boys.
For parents with several children or living in extreme poverty, child marriage is simply a way to help alleviate the desperate economic conditions they find themselves in. It’s one less mouth to feed and one less education to fund.
In communities where a dowry needs to be paid by the girl’s family, an earlier marriage at a younger age may mean a lower expense. A younger girl would presumably have more time to dedicate to her new family and bear more children, so she might fetch a higher bride price – the amount paid by the groom in some communities to the parents of a bride.
Sometimes, girls are married to help offset debts, settle conflicts or as a substitute for money. Worse still, families may have no choice but to arrange a younger daughter’s marriage along with her sister’s, if a cheaper “package deal” can be had.
There are so many ways in which child marriage creates economic incentives for young girls to be married off early – whether for financial security or gain. Sadly, the practice also tends to trap these girls into a lifetime of economic disadvantage.
Poverty is one of the key causes of child marriage, but it’s also an ongoing consequence. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn and fully realize her potential, child brides are disempowered.
Many are left to live a life of deprivation and disadvantage. Without an education, they are less able to lift themselves and their families out of the cycle of poverty.
Where a couple is living in union, as if they were married but without proper legal recognition, child brides face an even greater risk of economic exploitation. The informality could leave her vulnerable to abuse without the full advantages of social recognition, citizenship and inheritance.
Child marriage can also be influenced by norms and beliefs. In some societies, marriage is nothing more than a phase of womanhood.
Once menstruation starts, a girl is seen as a grown woman, so the logical next steps for her in life are marriage and motherhood. Younger girls may also be perceived as more amenable, more easily shaped into an obedient wife.
In some places, child marriage is political. Unions are arranged to build or strengthen ties between tribes or communities. Elsewhere, it’s about family honour. Avoiding the shame of having an unmarried daughter or one who becomes pregnant out of wedlock.
In many cultures, girls who have lost their virginity are considered “ruined” or “unsuitable” for marriage. Parents may arrange a union for their daughter while she is young to ensure she remains a virgin and to maximize her child-bearing years.
For other families, forced child marriage is a survival strategy. If they cannot afford to feed and educate all of their children, marrying off the girls would be “the next best thing” to starving, while also allowing them to give preference to boys’ schooling.
In fragile contexts, like environments with ongoing war or crisis, early marriage is also seen as a legitimate way of protecting girls in an otherwise hostile environment. Where people have been forced from their homes, the protection of a husband is preferable to the risk of physical or sexual assault from strangers in refugee camps or informal tent settlements.
Child marriage statistics show that girls who aren’t in school face a greater risk of becoming child brides. Girls who have no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than girls who attended secondary school or higher.
When girls have access to education, they develop the knowledge and confidence to make important life decisions for themselves – including if, when and who to marry.
Even for those in school, early marriage can significantly impact a girl’s ability to continue with education. Many are forced to drop out in order to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children of their own. Parents and community leaders may see education as unnecessary for their primary roles in life as a wife and mother.