UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Tim Dirven/Panos Pictures
Young Afghan mother and malnourished child wait at a nutrition centre run by Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Unmapped Journey:
Adolescents, Poverty and Gender

-Adolescence: Opportunities and Risks

-Reproductive Health in the Lives of Adolescents
and Youth

-Young People and HIV/AIDS

-Child Marriage

-Young People and Employment

Child Marriage

Most countries have declared 18 as the minimum legal age of marriage, but parental consent and custom often override these laws.(86) Despite the sanctions on child marriage, more than 100 million girls are expected to marry in the next decade.(87) While it has decreased globally over the last 30 years, the practice is still common among the poorest of the poor and in rural areas.(88) It is highest in South Asia, Western and Middle Africa.(89) Where young girls are perceived as an economic liability, their marriage may form part of a family's survival strategy. More than two thirds of adolescent girls are married in Bangladesh, Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more than half in Afghanistan, India and Nigeria.(90) In six West African countries, about 44 per cent of women had married before 15.(91)

AN EXPERIENCE OF FEAR AND UNCERTAINTY. While parents may hope to protect girls' economic and personal security through marriage, it frequently has the opposite effect. Marriage often marks an end to their education. A global analysis found that girls with primary school or less were more likely to be married in adolescence.(92) For many girls, marriage is fraught with fear and uncertainty: The decision is made for them and they may have little advance notice before the wedding day. After the ceremony, married girls usually move to their husbands' homes, sometimes in another village, far away from family and familiar surroundings, and are pressured to produce children. They typically describe their first marital sexual experience as distasteful or painful and frequently mention the use of force.(93)

MARRIED GIRLS-HIGH-RISK FOR MATERNAL MORTALITY AND HIV/AIDS. Despite the large number of married adolescent girls, policies and programmes often fail to address their vulnerability to HIV or other reproductive health needs. Studies in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia confirm that married adolescents have higher rates of HIV infection than their sexually active unmarried peers.(94) Isolation and powerlessness are additional problems. Young wives often have limited autonomy or freedom of movement. They may be unable to obtain health care because of distance, expense or the need for permission from a spouse or in-laws. These barriers can aggravate the risks of maternal mortality and morbidity for pregnant adolescents.

Ending child marriage is closely correlated with reaching the MDGs. Child marriage denies girls the right to an education and the opportunity to realize their full potential. Married adolescent girls have limited power to influence childbearing or contraceptive decisions, with implications for infant health and survival, maternal mortality, HIV, high fertility and poverty reduction. In Bangladesh, if the mean age of childbearing increased by five years, population growth would fall by 40 per cent,(95) which would improve the country's chances of reducing poverty and sustaining development.

Recognizing the rights of adolescent girls and the implications for poverty reduction, UNFPA and its partners launched a global initiative in 2004 to end child marriage.


Since 2000, youth have been active in the fight to prevent HIV in four high-prevalence countries through the African Youth Alliance (AYA), co-led by UNFPA, Pathfinder International and PATH, and supported with a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The programme also engages communities, including cultural and religious leaders, in creating a supportive environment for gender equality and reproductive health. Survey results show AYA increased young people's knowledge of HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy risks, and gave them greater confidence in negotiating condom use. The programme's emphasis on making services more "youth-friendly" resulted in dramatic increases in utilization, with two million young people visiting between 2003 and 2004 and, of those, 17,000 sought voluntary HIV counselling and testing.

The initiative has spurred change at many levels, including on gender issues. In Botswana, 36 faith-based organizations identified adolescent reproductive health as the core strategy of the broader church response to HIV/AIDS. The Ministry of Education is reviewing regulations that expel pregnant girls from school. AYA has also campaigned against sexual violence through "War Against Rape" school clubs. In Ghana, AYA's innovative community-based paralegal initiative has resolved cases of rape, domestic violence, child trafficking, child marriage and the abduction of adolescent girls. Through the Pregnant and Parenting Teen Centre, more than 300 young women have received life-skills training.

In the United Republic of Tanzania, AYA increased the number of young women accessing reproductive health services by organizing girls-only soccer games that included sessions on HIV prevention before the matches. On the issue of child abuse, national media campaigns by the Clouds FM radio station led to the hiring of a law firm to forward cases to the courts. Widely publicized debates on the impact of child marriage influenced the government to order that girls under 18 be allowed to return to school after the delivery of their babies. In Zanzibar, parliamentarians have called for amending an act that imprisons pregnant girls.

In Uganda, Anglican and Muslim leaders have publicly declared support for voluntary HIV counselling testing and condom use, respectively, for married young couples. Emphasis on the availability and confidentiality of services has encouraged young people to seek HIV testing. Christian and Muslim communities are now enforcing the marriage age of 18, requiring girls to produce birth certificates. The King of Busoga called for the reintegration of young mothers into the school system.

"I never had the opportunity to be heard, understood and appreciated prior to AYA. When you live in an environment that deprives you of your basic rights and discriminates against you because you are young, you need a platform to voice your thoughts, and AYA is more than that. It taught me how to advocate for my rights but most importantly for the rights of other young people, especially girls.."
- Ngasuma Kanyeka, young woman from the United Republic of Tanzania

Young People and Employmente >>
<< Young People and HIV/AIDS