Child marriage

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Overview

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the practice remains widespread, in part because of persistent poverty and gender inequality. In developing countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching age 18. One in nine is married under age 15.

Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects. Girls pressed into child marriage often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. These complications are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.

UNFPA promotes legislation and programmes designed to end child marriage. UNFPA also supports evidence-based, girl-centred investments that empower girls with the information, skills and services they need to be healthy, educated and safe, helping them make a successful transition to adulthood. UNFPA also works to support the needs of married girls particularly in family planning and maternal health.

Denial of rights

Child marriage denies girls the right to choose whom and when to marry – one of life’s most important decisions. Choosing one's partner is an adult decision, one that should be made freely and without fear or coercion. On this, virtually all countries agree.

Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriage, approximately one third of girls in developing countries (excluding China) are married before reaching age 18, and an estimated 12 per cent are married before their 15th birthday. In 2010, over 67 million women aged 20-24 reported that they had married when they were still girls. Half were in Asia, one fifth were in Africa.

In the next decade, 14.2 million girls under 18 will be married every year; this translates to 39,000 girls married each day. Fifty million girls could be at risk of being married before their 15th birthday.

Many international agreements outlaw child marriage, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 also called on countries to eliminate child marriage.

Impact on a girl’s health, future and family

Child marriage directly threatens girls’ health and well-being. Marriage is often followed by pregnancy, even if a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. In these countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading causes of death among adolescent girls.

Girls who are married may also be exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. When girls marry, they are often forced to drop out of school so they can assume household responsibilities. This is a denial of their right to an education. Early marriage also limits their opportunities, including future employment prospects, and has long-term effects on their families. Girls who leave school have worse health and economic outcomes than those who stay in school, and eventually their children fare worse as well.

Factors contributing to child marriage

Child marriage is the toxic product of poverty and gender inequality. Girls in child marriages also tend to be less educated and to live in rural areas. Many impoverished parents believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ future by ensuring that another family will be responsible for their care. This is also true in humanitarian crises, when many parents fear they will be unable to protect or care for their daughters. Some mistakenly believe marriage will protect their daughters from sexual violence, which is often exacerbated in times of crisis.

Some parents see their daughters as burdens or commodities. Dowries complicate the issue: In places where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, creating an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off early. In places where the groom’s family pays a bride price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.

And more often than not, child marriage is the outcome of having few choices. When girls have a choice, they marry later.

How to end child marriage

Ending child marriage requires action at many levels. Existing laws against child marriage should be enforced, especially when girls at risk of child marriage, or who are already married, seek protection and justice. And where it is not yet the case, the legal age of marriage should be raised to 18. But laws only provide the framework for action against child marriage. Practices people deem acceptable are unlikely to disappear through legislation alone.

Governments, civil society and other partners must work together to ensure girls have access to education, health information and services, and life-skills training. Girls who are able to stay in school and remain healthy enjoy a broader range of options, and they are more likely to be able to avoid child marriage. 

And, importantly, girls who are already married need to be supported. These girls need reproductive health services to help them avoid early pregnancy. Those who become pregnant need access to appropriate care throughout pregnancy, childbirth and in the postpartum period. They should be supported, if they choose, in returning to formal or non-formal school.

Together, these measures lead to healthier families, higher levels of gender equality and, in turn, stronger societies and more vibrant economies. No society can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent, or personal exploitation that child marriage causes.

UNFPA’s role

UNFPA is committed to delivering concrete solutions to child marriage, with an emphasis on efforts that can be scaled-up and produce measurable results. UNFPA works with governments and civil society partners, at all levels, to promote and protect the human rights of girls, including assisting with the development of policies, programmes and legislation to address and curtail the practice of child marriage. Many of these efforts, such as the Action for Adolescent Girls programme, empower girls to know their human rights, including their right to choose, as adults, whom to marry.

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