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7 things you might not know about child marriage

7 things you might not know about child marriage
After learning about the illegality of child marriage through life-skills education provided by the UNFPA-supported Kishori Resource Center in her community in Jamalpur District, Tahiya (right) was able to help stop the marriage of her high school classmate Shila (left). © UNFPA Bangladesh/Prince Naymuzzaman

UNITED NATIONS, New York – Around the world, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, romance, and commitment. It’s an occasion, perhaps, to propose. But for millions, what should be a joyous moment is not the stuff of fairy tales. Too many women and girls are married off before their 18th birthday. Many child brides are forced to leave school, exposed to violence, and pressed into parenthood before they’re ready.

Child marriage is a human rights violation that often ensnares the most vulnerable, impoverished, and marginalized girls. The practice is also calamitous for communities, locking child brides and their families in a cycle of poverty for generations. Ending child marriage – enabling girls to complete their educations, postpone motherhood, find gainful employment, and fulfil their potential – could generate billions of dollars in earnings and productivity, research finds.

This Valentine’s Day, as in previous years, UNFPA calls on the world to end child marriage. Below are seven facts about the issue that you may not know.

1. Child marriage is common and takes place in every corner of the world

More than 650 million women and girls alive today were married or in informal unions before their 18th birthday. Globally, 19 percent of women between the ages of 20 – 24 were child brides. And while child marriage is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, no country is unsusceptible.

Not all child marriages or unions are the result of parents’ or guardians’ decisions. Adolescents sometimes choose to get married as a way to exercise independence, escape difficult circumstances, including desperate poverty or family violence, or because they view it as the only way to be sexually active

Though not legally wed, 16-year-old Gabriela* lives with her 36-year-old partner in Brazil in an informal union. “I decided to live with him because the husband of my mother didn’t like me and didn’t accept me in his house,” she said. While Gabriela managed to remain in school–often not the case among child brides–she has had to make other adjustments. “He is a little jealous, so it affected my relationship with family and some friends,” she said. “When I was single, I could do whatever I wanted. Now, I have to be respectful to my partner.”

Advocates, from faith leaders in Zanzibar and rights activists in North Macedonia to community leaders in Mozambique and teachers in Malawi, are fighting the practice, too. 

2. There is progress – but not enough

Girl with back turned talking to four other girls
“I don’t want to get married right now. I want to continue my studies,” said Shanti (name changed). “After all, it’s about my life and my rights.” As a 16-year-old in India who learned about the harmful effects of child marriage in school, she fought off marriage to a 25-year-old distant relative. Here she talks to peers about their rights. © UNFPA India 

The good news: thanks to your support for UNFPA, global child marriage rates are slowly falling. Child marriage has declined across most regions in the last 25 years. Certain high-prevalence regions have seen accelerated progress over the past decade. 

But, without more support, the total number of girls are at risk of child marriage will increase due to population growth. The gap in prevalence between the richest and poorest households has widened in most parts of the world. And COVID-19 has disrupted efforts to end child marriage and caused wide-reaching economic consequences. The pandemic will likely result in an additional total 13 million child marriages that otherwise would not have occurred.

Police, child protection services, hospitals or helpline records hint at the impact of COVID on child marriage. In Bangladesh, for example, there was a 4X increase of violence-related calls to a child helpline, with the number of calls reporting cases of child marriages rising during the pandemic period of April – June 2020. Similarly, calls to a child helpline in India spiked 50 per cent. Interventions by social workers prevented nearly 900 child marriages during the pandemic period.

3. Child marriage often rises in humanitarian settings

Conflict, displacement, natural disasters, and climate change exacerbate the drivers of child marriage. These factors destroy livelihoods and education systems, increase the risk of sexual violence, and spur concerns for girls’ safety and family honor. Overall, child marriage in situations of fragility is nearly two times higher than the world average. 

Marriage in these contexts can look different. For example, interactions between Syrian refugees and more liberal host communities have led to the erosion of traditional norms. Families were more willing to keep girls in school and allow them to work. Such shifts led to changes in traditional marriage practices, such as reduced grandparent involvement and marriages between cousins replaced by marriages outside of family.  

4. Ending child marriage is surprisingly affordable

Girl sitting cross-legged in sun
In the Philippines, Mimah was married off by an uncle at 17 but after more than a year, she wanted out. Now she counsels other young women about their rights at a women-friendly space. “I realized I have the power to turn my negative experiences as a tool to help other women,” she said. “They are not alone in this fight.” The country recently passed a law banning child marriage and mandating children are taught about its effects. © UNFPA Philippines 

UNFPA released a joint study assessing the cost to end child marriage in countries with the highest prevalence. Ending child marriage in the next decade, researchers concluded, would cost just $35 billion, or $600 per girl.

The $35 billion investment – in educational interventions, empowerment initiatives, life skills trainings and programs that change social norms around child marriage – would prevent approximately 58 million child marriages. On top of that, when girls have education and employment opportunities, they can give back to their communities.

5. Nearly all countries have banned child marriage.

Two of the most broadly endorsed human rights agreements in the world prohibit child marriage. Nearly every country has signed or ratified these treaties.

Yet around the world, national or local laws 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. Around the world, many marriages are not legally registered. Even in places where child marriage is illegal, enforcement is lax.

The legal age to wed in Eritrea is 18, but that hasn’t prevented families from defying the law. To avoid marriage to a man 3X her age – her former elementary schoolteacher – Fatma went into hiding. She managed to finish high school and eventually earn a college degree in biology.

Guinea-Bissau has signed both human rights treaties, children can wed with consent of a parent, guardian, or court. When her parents tried to marry her off at 14, Ana walked more than 12 miles to reach a church that hosts girls fleeing forced marriage. “The reason for early marriage in our communities is justified by the parents as being related to cultural and economic aspects,” said Pastor Abdu. “And due to ancestral beliefs, they sometimes resort to firearms to try to recover their girls in the church.”  

Still, there are signs the world is moving in the right direction. In the past three years, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and six U.S. states have banned the practice. Indonesia has committed to ending the practice. Mozambique’s Parliament approved legislation outlawing it. And, England and Wales have made strides in raising the minimum age of marriage to 18. 

6. Child marriage and teen pregnancy are closely – and perilously – linked 

Woman in front of house and tree
After prolonged labour, Beatriz Sebastião’s first pregnancy at 15 ended in a stillborn and obstetric fistula, a traumatic childbirth injury that was eventually repaired via surgery after nearly six years. © UNFPA Mozambique

Child marriage is often a precursor to early pregnancy. In developing countries, married girls account for a majority of adolescent births. 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 girls between the ages of 15 and 19

Beatriz in Mozambique got pregnant at 15. Living far from a hospital, her delivery lasted three days before she reached medical care. The baby was stillborn, and Beatriz suffered the devastating childbirth injury of obstetric fistula. Her fistula made her a social outcast for nearly six years until she had reconstructive surgery. 

Pregnant girls also experience violence. Married at 12, Ghada* in Yemen had her first child, a daughter, at 13. Ghada’s husband wanted a son and punished his wife by abusing her physically and emotionally. Her second child was a boy. But during her third pregnancy at 15, Ghada felt so hopeless, she tried taking her life. Aided by a UNFPA safe space, she left her husband, and at age 16, is rebuilding her life with her three children. 

Early Pregnancy Can Also Lead to Child Marriage

On the flip side, early pregnancy also puts girls at risk of marriage. Communities may expect girls to marry the father of their baby – even a rapist – to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy, or in order to try to ensure her financial security and that of her child.

When Yensen in Malawi found herself pregnant at 15, local custom dictated that she move in with the baby’s father. He soon became abusive, but her in-laws, who had paid a bride price for her, refused to let her leave. “In our culture, it is a disgrace to the family and the community at large to walk away from marriage when you are a girl or woman,” she said. “You are treated as an outcast or a person of loose morals.” Yensen eventually found a way to leave and is juggling the duties of a mother and student. 

7. Empowering girls is vital to ending child marriage

Two girls looking at camera
Ana Kabi (left) and Zaida Na N’fad sought refuge from child marriage at an evangelical church, which at one point housed 40 girls. © UNFPA Guinea-Bissau

We need extensive changes to end child marriage. We must strengthen and enforce laws against the practice, make progress on gender equality, and ask communities to commit to protect girls’ rights.

At UNFPA, we empower young people to know and claim their rights. This means providing accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health. And, they must have access to education and skills development and platforms for participation in community and civic life.

Such information and opportunities can be life-changing. With knowledge, young people, including girls, can advocate for themselves and even persuade their families to cancel or delay engagements.

Empowered Girls Advocate for Others

In Nepal, Bidhya financially strapped family needed help around the house so she had to leave seventh grade. They also had plans to marry her off. But radio programming on preventing child marriage known as Rupantaran (meaning “transformation”) taught Bidhya about her rights. “I will continue school,” she said. She convinced her parents to let her return. Bidhya said, “when I discovered my parents’ plan to marry me off, I protested and was able to stop it.” 

Girl looking at camera
Chinara Kojaeva successfully resisted being married off at 14 and again at 17. “I would like to become a law enforcement officer and help people,” she said. © UNFPA Georgia/Dina Oganova


Chinara Kojaeva in Georgia escaped child marriage not once but twice. “I was 14 when they wanted me to marry for the first time,” she said. “When I became 17, they almost got what they wanted. But my life is not theirs to decide. I prefer to take time and make my own steps.”  
UNFPA works around the world to educate and empower girls and to raise awareness about the dangers of child marriage.

Empowering the World’s Most Vulnerable

Between 2016 and 2019, a joint program with UNICEF empowered some 7.2 million girls. And, more than 30 million people received media messages, community dialogues, and other advocacy.

Many girls have become advocates in their own right. In Madagascar, two of five girls marry before 18 and 13 percent of women marry before 15. Narindra* filed a complaint against her mother, who forced her to marry at 15 for financial support. Her husband was three times her age and abusive. Narindra secretly accessed family planning services at a youth center. She also learned that child marriage was illegal. Her husband received 10 years in prison; her mother received a three-year suspended sentence.

“My mother asked for forgiveness and made other mothers aware of the rights of girls facing this practice,” she said. The former child bride is back in school. She has become a peer educator at the youth center, helping other girls avoid her fate. 

Fourteen-year-old Ruth* in Northern Uganda, too, is raising awareness about the harmful practice as part of the UNFPA girls’ club. Ruth refused her mother’s command that she marry a 35-year-old man offering two goats and some money. Her mother banished her from the house, so Ruth moved in with a club mentor. “My dream is to become a pilot. I am going to study hard,” Ruth said. “I will be a powerful and great woman to fight child marriage, defilement, teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence.”  

*Names changed for privacy and protection originally published a version of this article.

Dana Kirkegaard
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