Every year an estimated 14 million girls are married before they turn 18.Robbed of their childhood, denied their right to health, education and security. Child marriage is a global problem that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities. It denies girls their rights to health, to live in security and to choose when and whom they marry. It cuts short girls’ education and traps them, their families and their communities in a cycle of poverty.
What is the impact?
In 2010, 13.5 million girls were married before they turned 18. If we do nothing, by 2030 an estimated 15.4 million girls a year will marry as children.
In Africa, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday and some child brides are as young as eight or nine.
Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.
Child marriage and the Millennium Development Goals
Child marriage directly hinders the achievement of 6 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals. Simply put, the international community will not fulfill its commitments to reduce global poverty unless it tackles child marriage.
MDG 1: End poverty and hunger: Girls who marry young do not receive the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them and their families out of poverty.
MDG 2: Universal education: Child brides are usually forced to drop out of school. The education gap between girls and boys in the developing world is often greater where child marriage is common.
MDG 3: Gender equality: Child brides rarely have any say in the decision to marry.
MDG 4: Child health: When a mother is under 18, her baby is 60 percent more likely to die in its first year of life than a baby born to a mother older than 19.
MDG 5: Maternal health: Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women under their 20s.
MDG 6: Combat HIV/AIDS: Child brides lack the information or the power to negotiate safe sexual practices with their often older and more sexually experienced husband.
Impact of Child marriage on Health
Improving the health and wellbeing of adolescent girls and enabling them to avoid early marriage is one of the most direct ways to improve maternal health, to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to ensure more children around the world survive into adulthood.
In spite of this, few health services are tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of child brides, who are hard to reach and are often unaware that services such as family planning are in place to support them.
Child marriage affects many aspects of a girl’s health. Neither physically or emotionally ready to give birth, child brides face higher risk of death in childbirth and are particularly vulnerable to pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula. Unable to assert their wishes and negotiate safe sexual relations with their often older husbands, child brides are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than unmarried girls of the same age.
When a girl marries as a child, the health of her children suffers too. The children of child brides are more likely to be born with a low birth weight and are 60% more likely to die in their first year of life than those married to mothers older than 19.
Why does child marriage happen?
Tradition: Child marriage is a traditional practice that in many places happens simply because it has happened for generations – and straying from tradition could mean exclusion from the community. But as Graça Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, says, traditions are made by people – we can change them.
Gender Roles: In many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are not valued as much as boys – they are seen as a burden. The challenge will be to change parents’ attitudes and emphasize that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will likely be able to make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.
Poverty: Where poverty is acute, giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. In communities where a dowry or ‘bride price’ is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families; in those where the bride’s family pay the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated.
Security: Many parents marry off their daughters young because they feel it is in her best interest, often to ensure her safety in areas where girls are at high risk of physical or sexual assault.
How can we end child marriage?
Solutions vary according to the circumstances in each community. Factors to consider when assessing how and where to support efforts to end child marriage.
ü Educating and empowering girls
Education is one of the most powerful tools to delay the age at which girls marry as school attendance helps shift norms around child marriage.
Improving girls’ access to quality schooling will increase girls’ chances of gaining a secondary education and helps to delay marriage. When a girl is in school, she receives seven or more years of education, and marries on average four years later.
Empowering girls, by offering them opportunities to gain skills and education, providing support networks and creating ‘safe spaces’ where girls can gather and meet outside the home, can help girls to assert their right to choose when they marry.
ü Supporting young people to become activists for change
ü Mobilising and educating communities
ü Bringing men and traditional leaders on board
ü Enacting and enforcing laws that set a legal minimum age for marriage.