Child marriage affects millions of girls worldwide
While boys are sometimes married early, girls are disproportionately affected and form the vast majority of victims of child marriage. Every single day, it is estimated that more than 25,000 girls under the age of 18 are married. This practice not only harms the young brides, but also impedes the development of their communities and societies as a whole.
Child marriage hotspots
- Niger: 75% of women aged 20-24 were married before reaching 18.
- Chad: 72%
- Mali: 71%
- Bangladesh: 64%
- Guinea: 63%
- Central African Republic: 61%
- Sierra Leone: 56%
- Mozambique: 52%
- Nepal: 51%
- Malawi: 50%
- Ethiopia: 49%
- India: 47%
Source: UNICEF 2010, The State of the World's Children
Child marriage puts girls at risk and perpetuates poverty
Girls face huge risks when they marry at a young age. They are much more prone to death or injury due to early sexual activity and early childbearing. A girl under the age of 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in her twenties.
The children of young mothers are also at much greater risk. When a mother is under 18, her baby is 60 per cent more likely to die before its first birthday than a baby born to a mother older than 19. As young brides often have older husbands, they may not have the power to negotiate safe sexual behaviour. This means they are more vulnerable to HIV infection and more likely to suffer domestic violence.
Girls who marry young also find it very difficult to complete their education. This increases the education gap between boys and girls and increases the likelihood that the girl and her family will live in poverty.
The Millennium Development Goals
Six of the eight MDGs are directly and negatively affected by the huge prevalence of child marriage:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Child marriage denies girls their fundamental rights
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Several UN bodies and conventions consider 18 to be the minimum age when a young person is able to make a significant life decision such as marriage. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Human Rights Committee (HRC).
Child marriage is a clear violation of human rights, including the rights to life, liberty, self-determination and health.
Working towards a world without child marriage
Efforts to end child marriage face enormous challenges:
- Poor legislative framework. Child marriage has been outlawed in most countries. However, laws preventing child marriage often fail to be enforced, and child marriage continues to take place in many communities.
- Lack of accurate data. Many countries do not collect data on sexual and reproductive practices. Girls are not always registered at birth, leaving their precise ages in question.
- Entrenched attitudes. In many communities child marriage is an ancestral tradition that has been gone unquestioned for generations. Efforts to address this harmful practice need to target whole communities and not just individuals.
- A neglected issue. Although child marriage is widely practiced and affects millions of girls, their families and the development of their communities, the issue has yet to be widely recognised.
What is already being done?
There are many groups tackling child marriage. Their approaches include:
- Empowering girls at risk of early marriage with information, skills and economic opportunities.
- Enhancing the education of girls and women.
- Establishing community dialogues to discuss the risks of early marriage with parents and community members.
- Encouraging the adoption and implementation of laws protecting girls.
The Elders' position
The Elders are committed to promoting equality between women and men, girls and boys, in all aspects of life. They are particularly concerned by the frequent misuse of religious and traditional beliefs to justify and perpetuate gender discrimination.
Child marriage is an important focus of this work. Ending this harmful practice is essential to protect the rights of women and girls and to improve maternal and child health, education and empowerment in developing societies worldwide. The practice of child marriage is declining slowly. However, approximately 14 million underage girls married off each year, The Elders believe this process can and must be accelerated – and that this requires a concerted, international effort.
Girls Not Brides
In 2010, The Elders began to forge a global civil society alliance for a world without child marriage. Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage brings together non-governmental organisations working all over the world to end this harmful practice. It aims to give a voice to girls at risk of child marriage, to defend their rights to health and education, and to give them the opportunities they need to fulfil their potential.
The partnership works by:
- Helping to put the issue on the international agenda and raise awareness among policy-makers and citizens.
- Strengthening organisations already working on child marriage, encouraging cooperation between global advocates and often isolated grassroots activists.
- Reaching out to political, religious and community leaders to lead efforts to end child marriage.