“I said to my parents, ‘Right now, I don’t want to get married. I have a long life and a dream in front of me.’”— Eka, a 14-year-old girl in Bangladesh who told her parents she wasn’t ready to marry (not pictured above)
Child marriage, simply put, refers to a union where at least one of the parties is under 18. The practice disproportionately affects girls, who are married as young as 7 or 8 years old in some contexts. Even in countries with laws against child marriage, cultural and traditional practices may outweigh national laws established to protect girls.
Child marriage hurts entire communities by contributing to an ongoing cycle of poor health, poverty, and gender discrimination. God wants his people to live in freedom, not under the burden of child marriage. With God’s help, World Vision believes a world free of violence against children, including child marriage, is possible.
The facts about child marriage:
Child marriage is either a legal marriage or an informal union (often a customary or religious marital arrangement) where one or both people are under 18 years old. Most commonly, a young girl is married to an older man, sometimes a much older man. It’s also common in some countries for boys to marry before age 18.
According to UNICEF’s June 2019 report, 12 million girls are married before they turn 18 every year, and, and in the developing world, one in nine girls is married before they turn 15. Around the world, 650 million girls and women alive today were married before they were 18.
Why is child marriage harmful?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, says that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” But child marriages are usually arranged by the parents without the child or children’s consent.
Children are not ready to emotionally or physically be husbands or wives. And while the practice hurts both boys and girls, girls experience harsher repercussions.
Early marriage often keeps a girl from completing her education, and the reverse is also true: girls who lack education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than those who attend secondary school or higher. In World Vision interviews, girls and young women often express a desire to delay marriage so they can finish their education. Unfortunately, cultural and social norms that value boys’ education over girls’ mean that finances may be reserved for boys’ education, whereas girls are pressured to quickly become wives and mothers.
But we know that education helps women become economically empowered, delay pregnancy and motherhood, and better understand their rights. Ending child marriage would increase the educational opportunities for girls, and with it, their potential earnings: The World Bank estimates that ending the practice could generate more than $500 billion annually.
Early pregnancy resulting from child marriage is especially hard on girls’ bodies: About 16 million girls ages 15 to 19 give birth each year in developing countries, and complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 around the world. Children born to young mothers who are not physically or emotionally ready are at a higher risk of malnourishment and stunting.
Child marriage reinforces the cycle of poverty. Without the chance to finish their education, child brides (and grooms) have limited economic opportunities, and uneducated parents are less likely to send their own children to school, continuing the cycle. According to a UNICEF report, for every extra year a girl stays in school, she increases her future earnings by about 15 percent.
Getting married before 18 increases a girl’s chances of experiencing violence. A study by the International Center for Research on Women found that in two Indian states girls married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands. Child brides are also often victims of sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress, and severe depression.
Girls in informal unions, as opposed to recognized marriages, may face even greater risk of exploitation without social and legal recognition.
How does child marriage affect boys?
While a greater percentage of girls are married as children, the practice also affects boys. Harmful gender norms push child grooms to take on adult responsibilities while they are still children themselves, and they may become fathers before they are ready. These social and economic pressures put strain on a child groom and limit his educational opportunities, contributing to an increased likelihood that boys will be engaged in child labor. Around the world, 115 million boys were married before age 18.
Why does child marriage happen?
There’s not just one cause of child marriage, and the causes shift based on cultural context. But gender inequality is at the root of the practice, and it’s compounded by the following factors:
- Poverty. More than 50 percent of girls from the world’s poorest families in developing countries are married before 18. In areas where poverty is severe, and especially in areas affected by conflict, girls may be married to secure their future and to gain income through a bride price (dowry). In areas with little opportunity, families may feel they have no other option.
- Cultural norms about family honor. In many cultures, families see child marriage as a way to protect girls from premarital sex, sexual abuse and/or becoming pregnant out of wedlock (in the developing world, 90 percent of girls under 18 who give birth do so in the context of marriage).
- Tradition. Without education about the harms of child marriage, the practice may continue simply because that’s what’s always been done. Some cultures view menstruation as a sign of a girl being ready to marry.
- Religion. Child marriage is not determined by any particular religion, but religion often plays a role, for better or worse. In some areas where child marriage persists, religious leaders continue to administer the rites of marriage even when legal marriage would be against the law. Religious leaders have an incredibly influential voice within their communities, and their choice to condemn or uphold the practice can have generational impacts on the lives of women and girls.
“I have decided to give the fight to end child marriage my all — with the same commitment that I gave to the struggle against apartheid.”— Archbishop Desmond Tutu
What are the current trends?
Overall, child marriage is declining, especially in India and parts of South Asia, where rates have gone down by about 35 percent between 2013 and 2018. Progress is slower in sub-Saharan Africa, home to about one in three child brides. But we’re still seeing some progress: Ethiopia was once one of the top five countries for child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, but the practice has reduced by a third in the last 10 years.
Overall, the percentage of women married before 18 decreased by 15 percent in the last decade, and UNICEF estimates that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade because of global efforts.
But the decline is not currently fast enough to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of ending the practice completely by 2030. One in five women is still married as a child, or 12 million girls a year. And in some conflict-affected countries, such as Syria and Yemen, the practice is increasing among the most vulnerable.
What can we do to stop child marriage?
There’s not a quick and easy fix to end child marriage. Educating a community about the harms of child marriage is a great step forward, but without new opportunities, parents may still see few other options for their daughters. Addressing child marriage requires a culturally appropriate, multi-faceted approach, including:
- Empowering girls and young women with information and avenues for them to make their voices heard (Like Eka, who at age 14 convinced her parents to let her stay in school instead of getting married.)
- Working with communities to understand the risks of child marriage and strengthening economic opportunities for vulnerable households.
- Ensuring education, health, and protection are available for boys and girls.
- Creating a supportive legal and policy environment.
- Working with religious leaders to change cultural norms.
- Supporting organizations working to end child marriage.
- Praying for girls and boys facing child or forced marriage.
Child marriage holds communities back by putting children’s health at risk, continuing the cycle of poverty, and devaluing girls. God calls us to loose the chains of injustice (Isaiah 58:6), and we can do so by speaking out against child marriage, praying for those affected, and standing up for policies and laws that give children the chance to choose their own futures.
To fight poverty, to end violence, to make the world a safer place for girls and boys, we must keep working to end child marriage.
There is a resolution now before Congress that recommits the U.S. Government to leading the world in ending violence against children in all its forms, including child marriage. The Ending Violence Against Children Resolution passed in the House of Representatives on March 3, 2020. Let’s keep progress going by asking the Senate to follow suit! More about the Ending Violence Against Children Resolution.
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Top photo: Thirteen-year-old Esin* in Herat, Afghanistan learned that her father had arranged for her to be married when she overheard him making arrangements on the telephone. Esin’s mother had been attending a World Vision organized Community Change Group, where the two of them learned about Esin’s rights. With the support of the group facilitator, they convinced Esin’s father to stop the marriage. “I tell my friends about what happened so they know their right not to get married,” says Esin. “I would like to be an advocate for girls, I hope all Afghan girls get an education so they can use their talents to build this country.” *Name changed to protect identity. (©2019 World Vision/photo by Brett Tarver)