From the Field

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

In a full classroom, high school girls wearing white uniforms smile from their desks.

Child marriage and forced marriage are violations of child protection and human rights. This widespread, harmful practice not only compromises a child’s development; it also severely limits their health, wellness, and opportunities in life. And yet, globally, at least 12 million girls per year are married before the age of 18.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) calls for a global effort to end child marriage by 2030.

FAQs: What you need to know about child marriage

Explore facts and frequently asked questions about child marriage, and learn how you can help end it.

What is child marriage?

At its core, child marriage — where one or both parties are children under 18­ — violates child protection and human rights. Many factors can lead to child or forced marriage — from financial or food insecurity to cultural or social norms. Whatever the cause, it compromises a child’s development and severely limits their opportunities in life.

While child marriage is far more likely to happen to girls, in some countries, it’s not uncommon for boys to marry before the age of 18. Often, a younger girl is married to an older man.

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How is forced marriage related to child marriage?

A key characteristic of forced marriage is the absence of one or both individuals’ full, free, and informed consent to the marriage. Marriage is considered forced when children are not in a position — legally or otherwise — to offer this kind of consent.

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How many child brides are there in the world?

About 650 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Worldwide, about 21% of girls are married in childhood. That’s 12 million girls under 18 every year — or 22 girls every minute.

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Why does child marriage happen today?

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. Overwhelmingly, child brides come from the world’s most impoverished nations.

In addition to poverty, preserving family honor or providing “protection” for the family, social norms and customs, and religious beliefs can all factor in to children being forced into marriage.

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Where does child marriage happen most?

Child marriage is a global problem. 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 to the Americas.

In West Africa, Niger has the highest rate of child marriage globally — 76% of girls in Niger are married before the age of 18. Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, like the Central African Republic and Chad, also see more than half of all girls married before their 18th birthday.

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Maryam (face partially shown) sits near her father, who has a microphone clipped to his olive-green shirt. His face is not shown.
The impact of child marriage can be devastating in Afghanistan, where an estimated 28% of Afghan women were married before the age of 18 in 2021. Hunger, chronic poverty, and mounting debt drove the parents of 7-year-old Maryam* to sell their daughter for her dowry (the equivalent of $2,250), so they could buy food for their children. They’re now praying they can pay the money back; otherwise, they must give Maryam to the man as soon as she turns 13. *Name changed to protect identity. (©2022 World Vision)

How are poverty and child marriage connected?

For parents with several children or families living in extreme poverty, child marriage is simply a way to help alleviate their desperate economic situation.

In communities where a girl’s family pays a dowry, marriage at a younger age can mean a lower expense. In other communities, the economic transaction is reversed, and a man will pay a bride price to the parents of a girl to marry her. In these communities, younger girls often fetch a higher price, since 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 to bring in money when families are struggling financially. Overall, child marriage creates many economic incentives for parents to marry off their young girls — whether for financial security or gain. Sadly, the practice also tends to trap girls and their children into a lifetime of economic disadvantage.

While poverty is a key cause of child marriage, it’s also an ongoing consequence. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn, and fully realize their potential, child brides are disempowered, especially in developing countries with limited economic opportunities. Without an education, women who were married as children can’t end the cycle of poverty for themselves or their family.

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Why is child marriage harmful?

Child marriage has far-reaching effects on girls’ physical and mental health and lifelong opportunities. 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 — running a household and raising a family — rather than going to school and participating in healthy social activities and age-appropriate play. A child bride usually doesn’t get to choose her own future.

  • Child marriage significantly impacts a girl’s ability to continue her education. Many girls are forced to drop out to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children. 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.
  • Child marriages have devastating consequences on girls’ health and development. As children themselves, they aren’t physically and emotionally prepared to become mothers. Teen moms and their babies are both at a higher risk of dying in childbirth than women who have children later. In fact, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death globally among adolescent girls ages 15 to 19.
  • Young girls also may not fully grasp their sexual and reproductive health and may have difficulty accessing contraception and family planning information. They’re also more likely to experience domestic violence or exploitation, even within marriage.
  • Girls in an informal union rather than a recognized marriage face an even greater risk of economic exploitation and abuse since they lack the full advantages of social recognition, citizenship, and inheritance.

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Seen through the trees, two Honduran teenaged girls sit talking on a hammock.
Alexandra encourages other teens in Honduras to delay marriage and childbirth until they have a good education and are adults. “Studying defines my future,” says Alexandra. “I am young, and I have my goals. What I want the most is to graduate from college with a nutrition degree, have my job, manage to buy my house, and eventually know when the time will be right to start a family.” Alexandra took part in World Vision’s youth network and now, as part of her senior project, shares the knowledge she learned in that program. (©2021 World Vision/photo by Andre Guardiola)

How does access to education for girls help reduce child marriage?

Girls who have no education are 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 whom to marry.

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How can I help end child marriage?

  • Pray for girls in cultures where child and forced marriage is common. Pray that they would gain access to education and be protected from these harmful practices.
  • Make a one-time donation to our girls’ education fund. Your gift will help support girls to stay in school, remain 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 alleviate some of the conditions that put her at risk of child marriage, all while equipping her with 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 make child protection a priority. We empower children with educational opportunities. We partner with their families and communities — men, women, boys, and girls — to help everyone understand a girl’s worth and potential. For programs to succeed, everyone needs to work together to help transform harmful practices.

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 community members on the importance of supporting women during pregnancy and motherhood and on the 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 when girls aren’t educated and empowered. By contrast, allowing girls to stay in school has serious payoffs, including reducing poverty and inequality and growing girls’ confidence, knowledge, and skills. That’s why World Vision prioritizes gender equality in our work to help communities achieve sustainable development, economic growth, and better prospects for their children — both boys and girls.

A girl wearing a headband with colorful ornaments hanging from it smiles.
Eleven-year-old Gareema beams with joy as she gathers with her classmates at an event where they will perform traditional dances in India. World Vision’s programming in her community helps keep girls like Gareema in school and prevents them from dropping out to be married. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Luke Aslaksan)

In our 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 Kenya, World Vision has expanded its Kenya Big Dream programming by partnering with schools and civic leaders to train boys and girls to prevent female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage in Baringo, Migori, Samburu, and West Pokot counties. Young people strengthen their commitment to ending FGM through an alternative rite of passage that honors their culture.
  • In India, World Vision, in partnership with the government, works through community activities to help parents and leaders prevent child marriage and keep their girls and boys in school. Programming includes Girl Power Groups and Adolescent Girl Groups that empower and inform girls about child marriage and the use of the Men Care Model, where men are brought into the conversation as allies of empowerment.
  • In Bangladesh, girls in World Vision’s life-skills education programs learn to solve problems, think critically, communicate effectively, and make their own decisions. Equipped with the knowledge of the causes and consequences of child marriage, they’re empowered to call on their local officials and law enforcement to intervene in cases. World Vision supports the committees with training and educational opportunities.
  • 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 have reached out to community groups, schools, the military, and police agencies to campaign against child marriage and for social justice.
  • In Uganda, World Vision is helping strengthen community-based child protection and support to help girls and their families say no to child marriage among South Sudanese refugees who are displaced in the country.
  • In Ghana, an innovative World Vision program has used a girls’ soccer tournament to boost an anti–child marriage awareness campaign.

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Timeline for ending child marriage

  • 2008 to 2009: Approximately 25% 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 has decreased to 1 in 5.
  • 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic places 10 million more girls at risk for child marriage over the next decade — in addition to the 100 million girls already at risk of becoming child brides by 2030 before the pandemic began.
  • 2030: The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals’ target year for eliminating child marriage in all countries.
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Jasmine Owen of World Vision’s staff in Canada and Sevil Omer from World Vision U.S. contributed to this article.

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