Child Marriage Fact Sheet
Most countries have declared 18 as the minimum legal age of marriage. Despite the sanctions on child marriage, however, more than 100 million girls are expected to marry in the next decade. 1
While the practice has decreased globally over the last 30 years, it remains common in rural areas and among the poorest of the poor. 2 Impoverished parents often believe that child marriage will protect their daughters. In fact, however, it results in lost development opportunities, limited life options and poor health.
Child marriage is a health issue as well as a human rights violation. Because it takes place almost exclusively within the context of poverty and gender inequality, it also has social, cultural and economic dimensions.
Married adolescents have been neglected from the global adolescent reproductive health agenda because of the incorrect assumption that their married status ensures them a safe passage to adulthood.
Married adolescents are typified by:
- Large spousal age gaps
- Limited social support, due to social isolation
- Limited educational attainment and no schooling options
- Intense pressure to become pregnant
- Increased risk of maternal and infant mortality
- Increased vulnerability to HIV and other STIs
- Restricted social mobility/freedom of movement
- Little access to modern media (TV, radio, newspapers)
- Lack of skills to be viable to the labour market
The link is clear
It is no coincidence that the same countries in Africa, Asia and the
Middle East that have high rates of child marriage are those with:
High poverty rates, birth rates and death rates
Greater incidence of conflict and civil strife
Lower levels of overall development,
including schooling, employment, health care
The East Asian “Miracles” like Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand that have successfully eradicated the harmful traditional practice of child marriage are characterized by:
Economic growth and opportunity
Declines in birth and death rates
Increase in educational and employment options for girls
The practice of girls marrying young is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. In other parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among some groups. In parts of Western and Eastern Africa and Southern Asia, the marriage of girls before puberty is not unusual. 3
Sufficient data were available to generate regional averages for young women (aged 15-24) who were married before the age of 18 in three regions 4:
- In Southern Asia, 48 per cent (nearly 10 million) of young women were married before the age of 18.
- In Africa, 42 per cent were married before turning 18.
- In Latin America and the Caribbean, 29 per cent of young women were married by age 18.
Regional averages, however, often mask wide variations among countries in the region (see chart below).
substantial variation within countries
In some countries, more than half of all girls under 18 are married. Specifically, the percentage of girls (aged 15 to 19) married by age 18 is: 5
- 76 percent in Niger
- 74 per cent in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- 54 per cent in Afghanistan
- 50 per cent in India
- 51 per cent in Bangladesh
While age at marriage is generally increasing, it is not uncommon to find girls married before age 15.
- In Ethiopia and some areas of West Africa, some girls get married as early as age 7. 6
- In Bangladesh, 45 per cent of young women between 25 and 29 were married by age 15. 7
- A 1998 survey in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh found that nearly 14 per cent of girls were married between the ages of l0 and 14. 8
- In Kebbi State of northern Nigeria, the average age of marriage for girls is just over l1 years, compared to a national average of 17. 9
Studies show a correlation between girls' educational levels and age at marriage: Higher median age at first marriage directly correlates with higher rates of girls in school. Conversely, getting and keeping girls in school may be one of the best ways to foster later, chosen marriage.
Because many married adolescents are pulled out of school at an early age, they may be unfamiliar with basic reproductive health issues, including the risk of HIV. Despite the large number of married girls, policies and programmes often fail to address their vulnerability to HIV or other reproductive health needs.
Isolation and powerlessness pose additional reproductive health risks: 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.
Married adolescents often face familial and societal expectations to have children as soon as they are married. Even if contraceptive services are available, married adolescent girls may lack the power to use them.
Likelihood of having unprotected sexual relations
As first-time young mothers, girls face high risks in their pregnancies including obstructed labour leading to obstetric fistula.
There is a strong correlation between the age of the mother and maternal mortality and morbidity. Girls ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24. 10 Girls ages 15-19 are twice as likely to die. The vast majority of these deaths take place within marriage. 11
In Cameroon, Ethiopia and Nigeria, maternal mortality among adolescents under 16 was found to be six times higher than for young women aged 20-24. 12
Child Marriage & Maternal Mortality: Maternal Mortality by Age
Parents may consider early marriage as a strategy to safeguard their daughters from HIV infection, but it often has the opposite effect. Studies in parts of Kenya and Zambia show that teenage brides are contracting HIV at a faster rate than sexually active single girls in the same locales. 13
- Further evidence indicates that about 17-22 per cent of girls between 15-19 years in sub-Saharan Africa are already living with HIV, compared to 3-7 per cent of boys on the same age. 14
- Studies in Kisumu, Kenya and in Ndola, Zambia, show higher rates of HIV infection in some groups of married adolescent girls compared with unmarried, sexually active counterparts. 15
Teenage brides with much older husbands often have limited capacity to negotiate sexual relations, contraception and childbearing, as well as other aspects of domestic life.
Data on spousal age differences show that adolescent girls' husbands are often considerably older. Research from 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicates husbands of 15-19-year-o1d-girls are on average at least l0 years older than their wives. 16
The younger the bride, the larger the spousal age difference
Women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife. 17 India has the highest levels of domestic violence among women married by 18 (see figure below). 18
Proportion of women married by the exact age of 18, by experience of violence