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Child marriage: facts and how to help

Child marriage: facts and how to help


WHAT WE'RE DOING
We work with communities to break down the inequitable systems and beliefs that force women and girls into marriage.
OUR GOAL
Prevention through inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030.

When it comes to child marriage facts, one of the most damning is the estimate that 650 million women and girls alive today were married as children. That's around 21 percent of all young women globally.

And the statistics don’t exactly paint a positive picture of the future. Each year, another 12 million girls under the age of 18 become child brides. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, another five girls were married.

At its core, forced child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights. Every day around the world, women and girls are forced to marry against their will.

Early marriage seriously harms the development and wellbeing of girls, through limited education and employment opportunities, social isolation, domestic violence and rape. Girls are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, and early pregnancy. 

There are many factors at play when a child ends up in an early or forced marriage – from financial or food insecurity to cultural or social norms. Whatever the cause, early marriage compromises a child’s development and severely limits their opportunities in life.

Early marriage also impacts future generations. A child born to an educated mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five. And they’re twice as likely to go to school.

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Child marriage statistics in 2020

  • 12 million girls – every year, 12 million girls marry before their 18th birthday – that’s nearly half the Australian population.
  • 1 in 5 girls – one in five girls is married, or in union, before turning 18. In the least developed countries, 40 percent of girls marry before age 18 and 12 percent marry before age 15.
  • 37 percent rate in sub-Saharan Africa – The highest rate of child marriage is in sub-Saharan Africa, with 37 percent of young women marrying before age 18.

Child marriage today

12

million girls

Every year, 12 million girls marry before their 18th birthday – that’s nearly half Australia’s population (UNICEF)

1 in 5

girls

One in five girls marries before they turn 18 (UNFPA)

37%

rate in sub-Saharan Africa

Over a third of young women in sub-Saharan Africa marry before age 18 (UNICEF)

1. What is child marriage?

Child marriage is a legal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are children under the age of 18. While early marriage is far more likely to happen to girls, it’s not uncommon for boys to marry before the age of 18 in some countries. More often than not, a younger girl is married to an older boy or man.

Early marriage is illegal in almost every country. However, early marriage laws are rarely enforced in many countries, and families and girls are often unaware these laws exist.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, forced and early marriage denies children their right to protection from harmful practices, abuse and exploitation, and takes away their right to develop to their fullest.

Most countries have ratified this convention; however, the age of consent varies and is often below the UN recommended age of 18.

2. Where does child marriage happen?

It may be difficult to imagine that there are still countries where child marriage is legal. But the reality is that it remains widespread – particularly in developing nations. Nine of the 10 countries with the highest rates are classified as fragile or conflict-affected states.

It cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines too. Countries where child marriage occurs can be found in almost every region of the world – from Africa to the Middle East, Asia to Europe and the Americas. Child marriage is mostly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Niger, in sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest rate of child brides globally. Seventy-six percent of girls are married before the age of 18. Neighbouring countries like Central African Republic and Chad also see more than two-thirds of all girls married before their 18th birthday. 

Countries with the highest rates of child marriage* 
RankCountry% married
before age 18
1Child marriage in Niger76
2Child marriage in Central African Republic68
3Child marriage in Chad67
4Child marriage in Bangladesh 59
5Child marriage in Mali54
6Child marriage in Mozambique53
7Child marriage in Burkina Faso52
8Child marriage in South Sudan52
9Child marriage in Guinea47
10Child marriage in Somalia45
11Child marriage in Nigeria43
12Child marriage in Malawi42
13Child marriage in Eritrea41
14Child marriage in Ethiopia40
15Child marriage in Madagascar40
16Child marriage in Nepal40
17Child marriage in Democratic Republic of the Congo37
18Child marriage in Mauritania37
19Child marriage in Suriname36
20Child marriage in Dominican Republic36
21Child marriage in Liberia36

*Percentage of women 20-24 years old who were first married or in union before they were 18 years old. Source: UNICEF global databases, 2020, based on Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and other nationally representative surveys.


Child bride in Uganda

Young girls in Uganda are denied a childhood when they are married and pregnant before they turn 18.


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, 40 percent of all girls are married before reaching adulthood.

Child marriage in India is alarmingly high in absolute terms, with over 15 million child brides. Twenty-seven percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday and seven percent are married before age 15 (UNICEF). 

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 bride in Bangladesh

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. What causes child marriage to happen and what are the dangers of child marriage?

The causes of child marriage are complex and varied, motivated by different factors across communities and regions – sometimes, even within the same country. Child marriage is often driven by engrained traditions and poverty. 

For struggling families, their best chance of survival may require marrying their daughters off, just because they can't afford to keep them. Overwhelmingly, child brides come from the world's most impoverished nations. 

Poverty

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 realise 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.

Tradition

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 maximise her child-bearing years.

Survival

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.  

Education

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. 

Education is vital in preventing early marriage

Educate a girl and change her world.
Health

Early and forced child marriage have devastating consequences on the health and development of a girl. Sexual activity is encouraged even though she is physically and emotionally unprepared to become a mother.

In fact, mum and baby are both at a higher risk of dying at childbirth. In 2017 alone, approximately 295,000 women died during and following pregnancy and childbirth. The majority of these (86 percent) were in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Many young girls don’t have a grasp of their sexual and reproductive health or rights. When they get married to older men, it can be difficult for them to voice their needs, particularly around issues like contraception and family planning. They are more likely to experience domestic violence or exploitation even within the context of a marriage.


4. What is World Vision doing to help end child marriage?

Child brides aren’t the only ones harmed. The history of child marriage shows us that communities, countries and entire generations suffer from the lasting impact. 

World Vision’s work in gender equality helps communities achieve more sustainable development, faster economic growth and better prospects for children.


Families learning to understand the negative effects of early child marriage

World Vision partners with families to help them understand the negative effects that early marriage can have on a young girl’s life. Nilanjona’s parents have decided to allow their daughter to continue with her education.


Wherever we work, we champion the rights of girls. We invest in girls by promoting their education and raising awareness about the dangers of early marriage. We know that working together with families, communities and governments can reverse the global trend of forced and early marriage.

We also partner with families and entire communities – men, women, boys and girls – to help them understand a girl’s worth and why her rights must be honoured. For programs to succeed, everyone needs to work together to help transform harmful beliefs and practices.

Send a girl to school Education is vital to ending child marriage. Help provide education for a girl so she can realise her potential.

5. How can we stop child marriage?

What are the solutions for ending child marriage? The statistics for child marriage are sobering. But we’re slowly turning the tide on the issue.  

Globally, one in five girls alive today was married before they turned 18. A decade ago, it was one in four. In the 1980s, it was one in three. It’s estimated that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade alone – that’s significant and meaningful progress worth celebrating.

But without a sustained reduction in the practice of child marriage, more than 120 million additional girls will marry before their 18th birthday by 2030

More than 190 countries around the world have adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and are committed to ending child marriage by 2030. In order to reach this target, we’ll need to continue to step up our efforts. 

You can partner with World Vision as we fight child marriage in a number of ways: 

  1. Educating children 
    Education is vital in the prevention of marriage. When a girl can stay in school, she is less likely to marry and she can acquire the knowledge and skills to find work and the means to support her family. 

  2. Educating parents 
    In many countries where child marriage occurs, parents often struggle to understand the damage of child marriage. They often believe that child marriage is protecting their child, but in most cases, the opposite is true. When we educate parents, we can help them understand the negative effects that early marriage can have on a young girl's life. 

  3. Community development 
    Intergenerational poverty and tradition is often the main cause of child marriage. But World Vision is helping millions of girls in the developing world who are trapped by harsh realities like child marriage. 

    We know that the most effective way to change children's lives is to change their world –  their family, their community and the local area. Real transformation happens – and lasts – when communities are empowered to change their own circumstances and can sustain and build on that change. 

    We overcome this through child sponsorship, which involves transforming the community and lifting them out of poverty by addressing issues concerning life's basic essentials, like water, health, education, safety and livelihoods. 

  4. Taking a stand with policy makers 
    Complex issues, like child marriage, require solutions across all sectors and levels. We need to press governments to implement and enforce laws and policies that protect children. 

    At World Vision, we challenge the social norms that reinforce the idea that girls are inferior. We create safe spaces for them to speak up against harmful practices and we pressure governments to increase the minimum age for marriage to 18 years. 

    When we work together, we can help girls pursue their dreams for their own futures and end child marriage for good. 

Read Teriano's story in The Guardian: the first woman to obtain a post-graduate degree in her Kenyan community  – and her fight against child marriage. 


Barbara and Lulu walking home together from school safely

Barbara and Lulu, both four years old, walk home together from school each day in Zambia.


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