Improving understanding of patterns and trends in child marriage

Resource date: Aug 2022

Publisher: UNFPA


Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the practice remains widespread: Globally, one in every five girls is formally married or in an informal union, before reaching age 18. For a girl, marriage can mean the end of her education, derail her chances of a vocation or career, expose her to violence and steal from her the chance to make foundational life choices. Girls pressed into child marriage often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. These complications are the leading cause of death among older adolescent girls. Ending child marriage is a priority for many governments, civil society organizations and activists across the world. 

Measuring child marriage is essential to our efforts to end this harmful practice. UNFPA has applied a research method that breaks down child marriage incidence by age, resulting in more sensitive and specific information than the summary measures yielded by the traditional approach used to measure progress towards Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

 The disaggregation of incidence by age reveals the extent of the problem among  younger girls, where action is the most urgent and impactful. In contrast to the traditional estimation approach, survival analysis reveals higher estimates for countries with constant or slightly rising child marriage rates, especially in countries with rapid population growth. Survival analysis also reveals lower estimates for countries with a rapid decrease in child marriage. 

  • The vast majority of girls remain unmarried until age 10. 

  • Child marriage rates increase gradually until age 14 and accelerate significantly thereafter at ages 15, 16 and 17. 

  • The majority of child marriage occurs in middle adolescence, pointing to the need for intervention in early adolescence. 

  • Regional variations indicate that the rate of child marriage starts to escalate only at age 16 and beyond in European countries, while in some sub-Saharan countries the rate accelerates as early as age 12. 

  • Overall, in 98 low and middle income countries, the survival analysis method yields an estimated number of girls marrying before age 18 of 7.08 million in 2020, lower than the 9.78 million using the SDG measurement for the same year. 

  • Relative to the traditional method, estimates are higher in countries with constant or slightly rising child marriage rates, due in part to the increase in population size of younger cohorts in these countries. 

  • Relative to the traditional method, estimates are lower in countries where child marriage shows a rapid decrease, especially among younger cohorts.

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