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Child marriage

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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. In the least developed countries, that number almost doubles – 36 per cent of girls are married before age 18, and 10 per cent of girls are married before age 15.

Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects. 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.

UNFPA promotes policies, programmes and legislation designed to end child marriage. UNFPA supports evidence-based, girl-centred investments that empower girls with the information, skills and services they need to be healthy, educated and safe, helping them make a successful transition to adulthood. UNFPA also works to support the needs of married girls particularly in family planning and maternal health.

Denial of rights

Child marriage denies girls the right to choose whom and when to marry – one of life’s most important decisions. Choosing one’s partner is a major decision, one that should be made freely and without fear or coercion. On this, virtually all countries agree.

Many international agreements outlaw child marriage, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 also called on countries to eliminate child marriage.

Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriage, 19 per cent of girls are married before age 18, an average of tens of thousands of girls every single day. Five per cent of girls are married before age 15. Girls that are married or enter informal unions early are denied the right to equality, education, and a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being and that of their family.

Impact on a girl’s health, future and family

Child marriage directly threatens girls’ health and well-being. Marriage is often followed by pregnancy, even if a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. In developing countries, a majority of births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. In these countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19.

Girls married as children are more likely to be exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. When girls marry, they are often forced to drop out of school so they can assume household responsibilities. Girls who leave school have worse health and economic outcomes than those who stay in school, and eventually their children fare worse as well.

Factors contributing to child marriage

Child marriage is the toxic product of economic inequality and gender inequality. Girls in child marriages tend to be less educated, and they are more likely to live in rural areas. Many impoverished parents believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ future by ensuring that another family will be responsible for their care. This is also true in humanitarian crises, when many parents fear they will be unable to protect or care for their daughters. Some mistakenly believe marriage will protect their daughters from pregnancy out of wedlock and sexual violence, which is often exacerbated in times of crisis.

Some parents see their daughters as burdens or commodities, a perception exacerbated in times of crisis. In places where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, creating an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off early. In places where the groom’s family pays a bride price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.

More often than not, child marriage is the outcome of having few choices. When girls have a choice, they marry later.

How to end child marriage

Global child marriage rates are slowly falling. Recent data show that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade. Around 2000, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. In 2021, this number is around one in five.

Still, progress has been uneven, and child marriage is not declining fast enough. Because of population growth in regions where child marriage is more prevalent as well as the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, the total number of child marriages is projected to increase by 2030. To change this, we must accelerate our actions to end child marriage.

Ending child marriage could be surprisingly affordable. In 2019, UNFPA released a joint study with the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Victoria University, the University of Washington and Avenir Health, assessing the price tag to end child marriage in 68 countries that account for about 90 per cent of these marriages. Ending child marriage in these countries by 2030, researchers concluded, would cost just $35 billion – roughly $600 to spare each child bride.

Existing laws against child marriage should be enforced, especially when girls at risk of child marriage, or who are already married, seek protection and justice. And where it is not yet the case, the legal age of marriage should be raised to 18 without exceptions. But laws only provide the framework for action against child marriage. Practices people deem acceptable are unlikely to disappear through legislation alone.

Governments, civil society and other partners must work together to ensure girls have access to quality education, health information and services, comprehensive sexuality education and life-skills training. Girls who are able to stay in school and remain healthy enjoy a broader range of options, and they are more likely to be able to avoid child marriage.

And, importantly, girls who are already married or in a union need to be supported. They need sexual and reproductive health services to help them avoid early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Those who become pregnant need access to appropriate care throughout pregnancy, childbirth and in the post-partum period. They should be supported, if they choose, in returning to formal or non-formal education.

Together, these measures lead to more bodily autonomy for girls, their being more in control of their lives, healthier families, higher levels of gender equality and, in turn, stronger societies and more vibrant economies. No society can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent or personal devastation that child marriage causes.

UNFPA’s role

UNFPA is committed to delivering tangible, evidence-based solutions to child marriage with an emphasis on efforts that are gender-transformative, can be scaled-up, sustained and produce measurable results. UNFPA works with governments and civil society partners at all levels to promote and protect the human rights of girls including assisting with the development of sexual and reproductive health, gender and youth policies, programmes and services and to transform gender norms to end the practice of child marriage. Many of these efforts, such as the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, empower girls to know and exercise their human rights, including their right to choose, as adults, whether, when and whom to marry.

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