From the Field

Child marriage: Facts, FAQs, and how to help end it

Child marriage compromises a girl’s development and severely limits her opportunities in life. Fifteen-year-old Saira, who identifies as a Rohingya Muslim, lives in a refugee camp in Bangladesh with her 10-month-old son. After a friend of hers was sexually assaulted, her parents arranged her marriage, hoping to keep her safe.

The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates more than 650 million women alive today were married before the age of 18. In 2016, another 5.6 million girls under the age of 18 become child brides.

At its core, child marriage is a violation of child protection and human rights. Many factors can lead to child marriage or a forced marriage — from financial or food insecurity to cultural or social norms. Whatever the cause, child marriage compromises a child’s development and severely limits her or his opportunities in life.

A global effort has prevented about 25 million child marriages over the past 10 years. However, much more will have to be done to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating child marriage by 2030.

Timeline for ending child marriage

2008 to 2009 — Approximately 25 percent of women are married as children.

2012 — The first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 focuses on preventing child marriage.

2013 — The U.N. Human Rights Council puts child marriage on its agenda for action. The U.N. General Assembly declares child marriage to be a barrier to development.

2015 — The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 1 in 3 girls marry by age 18 and 1 in 9 marry by age 15. One target of the Sustainable Development Goals commits all countries to act to end child marriage.

2018 — The number of women who marry as children is down to 1 in 5. Delaware and New Jersey become the first U.S. states to outlaw child marriage without exceptions.

2030 — 2030 is the Sustainable Development Goals’ target date for all countries to end child marriage. If child marriage had continued at the 2015 rate, by 2030, there will be 960 million women alive who married as children.

Child marriage in India. Varsha, 11, attends school in an open-air classroom in India. Her family’s poverty and cultural traditions make it likely for her to marry as a child. But with every year Varsha stays in school, she’s less likely to marry early, like her mother and older sisters did.
Sponsored child Varsha, 11, attends school in an open-air classroom in India. Her family’s poverty and cultural traditions make it likely for her to marry as a child. But with every year Varsha stays in school, she’s less likely to marry early, like her mother and older sisters did. (©2016 World Vision/photo by Eugene Lee)

FAQs: What you need to know about child marriage

Get the facts on child marriage and learn how you can help end it.

What is child marriage?

Child marriage is a legal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are children under the age of 18. While child marriage is far more likely to happen to girls, in some countries, it’s not uncommon for boys to also marry before the age of 18. More often than not, a younger girl is married to an older man.

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Where does child marriage happen?

Child marriage is a worldwide problem, particularly in developing nations. It cuts across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines and can be found in almost every region — from Africa to the Middle East, Asia to Europe, and the Americas.

South Asia is home to 40 percent of the world’s child brides, due mainly to the region’s large population and the fact that child marriage has long been common here. However, India, in particular, is making real progress in ending child marriage, especially for girls under age 15.

Progress is slower in sub-Saharan Africa, the other main area of concern. At the same time, Africa’s high population growth means more girls will be at risk of child marriage.

Niger, in sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest rate of child marriage globally. Seventy-six percent of girls there are married before the age of 18. Neighboring countries like Mali and Chad also see more than half of all girls married before their 18th birthday. Read about the 10 worst places worldwide for child marriage.

In terms of absolute numbers, India alone accounts for a third of the global total. With more than 15 million child brides, the South Asian nation has more instances of child marriage than any other in the world. Bangladesh comes in a distant second, with more than 4 million child brides, even though the legal minimum age to marry there is 18.

There are actually only a handful of countries that don’t specify a minimum age for people to legally marry. But even in countries where there are laws to prevent child marriage — like Bangladesh — the practice is deeply rooted in their culture and largely accepted in society. Laws are rarely enforced, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Children are often allowed to marry as long as there is parental consent, regardless of their age.

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Child marriage avoided in Ethiopia. Kuraz, 16, overheard her parents talking about a marriage proposal for her. She was shocked and upset when they accepted on her behalf. Then a community child protection volunteer notified World Vision to help prevent the marriage. Despite intense pressure from community elders, Kuraz avoided marriage and stayed in school. (©2018 World Vision/photo by Meron Belay)
Kuraz, 16, overheard her parents talking about a marriage proposal for her. She was shocked and upset when they accepted on her behalf. Then a community child protection volunteer notified World Vision to help prevent the marriage. Despite intense pressure from community elders, Kuraz avoided marriage and stayed in school. (©2018 World Vision/photo by Meron Belay)

Why does child marriage happen?

The causes of child marriage are complex and varied. It’s motivated by different factors across communities and regions — sometimes even within the same country. However, it is most closely linked with low levels of economic development. Overwhelmingly, child brides come from the world’s most impoverished nations.

Poverty

Within many impoverished contexts, girls and women aren’t seen as potential wage earners. Rather, they are considered financial burdens to their families and consequently, less valuable than boys. For parents with several children or families living in extreme poverty, child marriage is simply a way to help alleviate the desperate economic conditions they find themselves in. It’s one less mouth to feed and one less education to fund.

In communities where a dowry is paid by the girl’s family, a marriage at a younger age can mean a lower expense. In other communities with a bride price — the amount paid by the groom to the parents of a bride — younger girls often fetch a higher price. They presumably have more time to dedicate to their new family and bear more children.

Girls are sometimes married to help offset debts, settle conflicts, or as a substitute for actual money. Worse still, families may have no choice but to arrange a younger daughter’s marriage along with her sister’s if a cheaper “package deal” can be secured. Overall, there are so many ways in which child marriage creates economic incentives for young girls to be married off early — whether for financial security or gain. Sadly, the practice also tends to trap these girls and their children into a lifetime of economic disadvantage.

Tradition

Child marriage can also be influenced by norms and beliefs. In some societies, marriage is nothing more than a phase of womanhood. Once menstruation starts, a girl is seen as a grown woman, so the logical next steps for her are marriage and motherhood. Younger girls may also be perceived as more amenable — more easily shaped into an obedient wife.

In some places, child marriage is political. Unions are arranged to build or strengthen ties between tribes or communities. Elsewhere, it’s about preserving a family’s honor — avoiding the shame of having an unmarried daughter or one who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. In many cultures, girls who have lost their virginity are considered “ruined” or “unsuitable” for marriage. Parents may arrange a union for their daughter while she is young to ensure she remains a virgin and to maximize her child-bearing years.

Survival

For other families, forced child marriage is a survival strategy. If they cannot afford to feed and educate all of their children, marrying off the girls eliminates the burden of feeding them, while also allowing parents to give preference to boys’ schooling.

In fragile contexts or where there is war or crisis, child marriage is also seen as a way to protect girls in a hostile environment. When people have been forced from their homes, they may reason that it is better for a girl to have the protection of a husband than to risk physical or sexual assault from strangers in refugee camps.

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Why is child marriage harmful?

Girls who marry as children are less likely to reach their full potential. They face separation from family and friends during a critical stage of their lives. They’re expected to take on the role of a grown woman — keeping house and raising a family — rather than going to school and playing. A child bride’s future is often not of her own choosing.

Education

Child marriage statistics show that girls who aren’t in school face a greater risk of becoming child brides: Girls who have no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than girls who attend secondary school or higher. When girls have access to education, they develop the knowledge and confidence to make important life decisions for themselves — including if, when, and who to marry.

Child marriage can also significantly impact a girl’s ability to continue with her education. Many girls are forced to drop out in order to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children of her own. Parents and community leaders may not see the value in continuing to educate a girl, seeing it as unnecessary for her primary roles in life as a wife and mother.

Health

Forced child marriages have devastating consequences on the health and development of girls. As children themselves, they are not physically and emotionally prepared to become mothers. Teen moms and their babies are both at a higher risk of dying in childbirth. In fact, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death globally among adolescent girls ages 15 to 19.

Young girls also don’t yet have a full grasp of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many end up married to an older boy or man and find it difficult to voice their needs, particularly around issues like contraception and family planning. They are also more likely to experience domestic violence or exploitation even within the context of a marriage.

Poverty

Poverty is a key cause of child marriage, but it’s also an ongoing consequence. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn, and fully realize their potential, child brides are disempowered. In developing countries with limited economic opportunities, many girls and women are the most deprived and disadvantaged. Without an education, they are unable to end the cycle of poverty for themselves or their family.

Girls in an informal union, rather than a recognized marriage, face an even greater risk of economic exploitation. Without the full advantages of social recognition, citizenship, and inheritance, they are vulnerable to abuse.

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How can I help end child marriage?

  • Pray for girls in cultures where child marriage is accepted and encouraged. Pray that girls would gain access to education and be protected from this unhealthy practice.
  • Make a one-time donation to our girls and women education fund. You can help provide resources such as school scholarships, art and music instruction, vocational training, and gender equality training. These resources help girls to stay in school, stay unmarried through their teens, and develop their God-given abilities — ultimately building a stronger, healthier society.
  • Sponsor a girl today. By investing in the life of a girl in need, you’ll help her to stay in school and avoid child marriage, all while providing access to the resources she needs to become a healthy, productive adult.

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What is World Vision doing to help end child marriage?

Wherever World Vision works, we champion the rights of girls and boys. We empower them with educational opportunities. We partner with their families and their entire communities — men, women, boys, and girls — to help everyone understand a girl’s worth and why her rights must be honored. For programs to succeed, everyone needs to work together to help transform harmful beliefs and practices. Read about fathers in India who are working together to end child marriage in their community.
 
As girls grow into women, our work in maternal, newborn, and child health plays a critical role in improving the health of mothers and babies. We educate all community members where we work on the importance of support for women during pregnancy and motherhood and on healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

Child brides aren’t the only ones harmed by child marriage. Communities, countries, and entire generations suffer the lasting impacts of child marriage. World Vision’s work in gender equality helps societies achieve more sustainable development, faster economic growth, and better prospects for their children both for boys and girls.

In its work with community child protection committees, faith leaders, children and youth clubs, local governments, and women’s savings groups in many countries, World Vision prompts action to prevent child marriage and intervene on behalf of child brides.

  • In West Pokot County, Kenya, World Vision joins with schools and civic leaders to train boys and girls to prevent female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as cutting, and child marriage. Young people strengthen their commitment to ending FGM/C through an alternative rite of passage that honors their culture.
  • Girls in World Vision’s life skills education programs in Bangladesh learn to solve problems, think critically, communicate effectively, and make their own decisions. Armed with the knowledge of the causes and consequences of child marriage, they stand up to prevent it and call on the Ward (County) Protection and Promotion Committees and law enforcement to intervene. World Vision supports the committees with training and capacity building.
  • In Afghanistan, World Vision has trained more than 4,000 imams on gender relations, including gender equity, rights to education, and preventing violence against women. As a result, Afghan faith leaders are reaching out to community groups, schools, military, and police to campaign against child marriage and for social justice.
  • Husbands’ schools organized by World Vision in Niger are bringing big changes to communities where child marriage and early childbearing have been the norm. Men who take part become strong advocates for girls’ education, women’s and children’s access to healthcare, and family planning.
  • World Vision is fighting child marriage among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda by strengthening community-based child protection and support to girls and their families.
  • In Ghana, an innovative World Vision program uses a girls’ soccer tournament to boost an anti-child marriage awareness campaign.

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Jasmine Owen of World Vision’s staff in Canada contributed to this article.

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