Child marriage is a violation of child rights, compromising the development of children, especially of girls. For many girls around the world, their marriage is something terrible instead of a joyous event. Child marriage is defined as both a formal marriage or an informal union before the age of eighteen. Although child marriage is a reality for both girls and boys, the majority of this practice affects girls.
The impact of child marriage has far-reaching effects on their lives, affecting the quality of their adult lives and the lives of their children. Those children who are forced into early marriage are denied the right to determine their own course of life and to be consulted on key decisions that affect them. Child marriage negatively impacts long-term poverty reduction and the implementation of other development goals like improving maternal health.
A Worldwide Issue
According to Girls Not Brides (a global partnership of 500+ civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential), child marriage is a widespread problem across the continents and affects the life of many children globally. The practice reaches across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Africa and South Asia to Europe. More than 700 million women who are alive today were married under the age of eighteen. Moreover, 1/3 of these women were married before they reached the age of fifteen. Child marriage has the highest prevalence in the developing world. At present, unprecedented attention is being paid to child marriage globally. Ending child marriage by 2030 and improving gender equality is included as a key target in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), adopted in September 2015.
One third of girls in the developing world (including Africa) are married before the age of eighteen. One in every nine is married before the age of fifteen. According to the latest estimates, 44 per cent of the women alive today in West and Central Africa were married under the age of eighteen. Due to population size, the highest absolute number of child brides is found in South Asian countries, the highest prevalence of child marriage is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. A staggering fifteen out of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are African countries. Data released by UNICEF show that the prevalence of child marriage has decreased slightly over the past thirty years. However, the issue of child marriage is still acute, due the prospected population growth in the countries where child marriage is most common. The population growth will outbalance the decreasing prevalence of child marriage. If present trends continue, 150 million girls will be married before their eighteenth birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of fifteen million girls each year!
The main causes of child marriage vary across regions, cultures and communities, but the control over girls’ sexuality often is central. In many areas where child marriage is common, marriage on a young age is considered as an integral part of culture and functions as a social norm. These traditional believes are fuelled by patriarchal norms, that subordinate women and girls. Despite international commitment to change, many societies and communities continue the practice of marrying their young daughters and sons, due to strong social pressures at the community level. Child marriage is more common where premature and continuous child bearing is encouraged and where education for boys is preferred or prioritised over education for girls. Child marriage is also a strategy for the economic survival of many families. When families marry off their daughters at a young age, it decreases their economic burden. Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before they are eighteen than girls in higher income households.
Marrying a child when it is not physically, mentally or emotionally ready has great impact on their health. After child marriage, teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy or during childbirth than women older than 20. Maternal deaths (deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth) are consistently among the leading mortality causes for girls aged between fifteen and nineteen. Their infants have a higher risk to be stillborn or to die in their first month of life. An infant of a mother under the age of eighteen has a 60% higher risk to die in its first year than an infant of a nineteen-year-old mother. Infants from teenage mothers are more likely to suffer from a low birth weight, under-nutrition and late physical and cognitive development. Child marriage does not only affect the maternal health of these girls, but is also an important factor in the prevalence of HIV. Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Again, there is a difference between girls and boys. Girls aged between fifteen and nineteen are two to six times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.
Education and child marriage are closely linked together. On the one hand, many girls drop out of school after they get married or get pregnant. They are not able to continue their education when they have to take care of their children and their household, or they are not allowed to by their husband or their family. On the other hand, many girls aren’t in education because schools are inaccessible or expensive, or simply because parents don’t see the value of education for their daughters. In many cases their parents don’t see any other option than to marry them off. Once girls are married, they are less likely to remain in school. When a girl drops out of school, she is denied the right to education and the possibility to develop the necessary skills and knowledge for healthy life in which she can earn an income and contribute to their family. This has a large impact on income-earning capacity of her family. Action by parties other than governments is crucial to promote education for girls, including religious and community leaders. Returning to school proves to be very difficult. As described, girls are practically and sometimes also legally excluded from further education. If they do return to school, they are often taunted by their fellow students.
Girls who are married before the age of eighteen are more likely to experience domestic violence. Child brides face a considerably higher risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. In a study in northern Ethiopia, 81% of child brides interviewed described their sexual initiation as forced. They are also more likely to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. Globally 44% of girls aged fifteen to nineteen think a husband or partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner. Child brides are less able to talk with their (often much older) husband on an equal basis and negotiate their wishes or safe and consensual sex. Girls married at a young age are often separated from their family and friends. In many cases they lack the freedom to participate in community activities. All these factors can have a major impact on the girls well-being, both mental as physical. Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
As referred to earlier, stopping child marriage by 2030 is included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). Meeting this target will require a combination of approaches across multiple sectors and on multiple levels. Only a diverse approach is able to identify the underlying factors that contribute to the problem of child marriage and that challenge gender equality and reproductive health and rights. Coordination across various sectors, including education, health, justice, and economic development is necessary. A commitment of political will and resources over many years, as well as a willingness to acknowledge adolescent girls’ sexuality and empower them is also necessary. Not only high-level decision makers should tackle this issue, child marriage must also be addressed with the help of grass-root organisations and local communities. Communities are at the core to change the practices within their culture. Training health workers and peer educators to teach communities about sexual and reproductive health, the health risks related to teenage pregnancies and women’s rights will create awareness and improve the lack of knowledge. Education can be one of the most powerful tools to enable girls to avoid child marriage, because girls are able to stay in school and finish their education. Economic factors need to be addressed as well to improve economic circumstances and the living conditions of families. It is important to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, in this way families don’t need to support as many children, and at the same time are able to take better care for their children.
The story of Esther
In Tanzania the prevalence of harmful cultural practices, including child marriage, is highest in the most deprived parts of the country. The majority of child marriages is spearheaded by elders. In times of drought or other emergencies, an increase in the number of child marriages is visible. Esther lives in Kilindi and was married at a very young age. In the middle of the night, she was brought to the small health clinic in Kwekivu Tanzania, sitting on the back of her neighbour’s motorcycle. At this time, Esther was thirteen years old and already eight months pregnant. Her body wasn’t nearly ready for the pregnancy and the delivery of her child. “Esther lost a large amount of blood. We thought that we would lose both Esther and her unborn baby. The only hospital bed in the clinic was already occupied by another patient, so we had to move that patient to the floor. With the limited resources available, we did everything we could do for her. Luckily, both Esther and her baby survived”, her nurse Violet says.
*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.