By 2020, some 142 million girls will be married by their 18th birthday (39,000 girls married each day). Child marriage jeopardizes girls’ rights and stands in the way of girls living educated, healthy, and productive lives. It also excludes girls from fundamental decisions, such as the timing of marriage and choice of spouse. Girls living in rural areas of the developing world are twice as likely to be married before age 18 as their urban counterparts, and girls with no education are more than three times as likely to be married than those with secondary or higher education.
The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994 called on countries to eliminate child marriage and to enforce laws that ensure free and full consent. Child marriage may be part of local tradition; parents may believe it safeguards their daughters’ future; poverty or conflict may propel it. But more often than not, child marriage is the outcome of fewer choices. Girls who miss out or drop out of school are especially vulnerable to it—while the more exposure a girl has to a formal education and the better off her family is, the more likely marriage is to be postponed.
Parents, communities, and countries want the best for their girls. The best for girls is the product of education, good health, including sexual and reproductive health, and broad choices that are to be freely made, not only regarding marriage, but in all aspects of her life. Investing in girls, developing their social and economic abilities, ensuring they have access to education and health services, and safeguarding that they can postpone marriage until they are ready means a huge stride for women. It also means healthier families and higher levels of gender equality. This in turn makes for stronger societies and more vibrant economies.
Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriage, one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will probably be married before they are 18. One out of nine girls will be married before their 15th birthday. Over 67 million women 20-24 years old in 2010 had been married as girls. Half were in Asia, one-fifth lived in Africa. In the next decade, 14.2 million girls younger than 18 will be married every year. This will rise to an average of 15.1 million girls a year, starting in 2021 until 2030, if present trends continue. While child marriages are declining among girls younger than age 15, 50 million girls could still be at risk of being married before their 15th birthday in this decade.
Even with the appropriate laws against child marriage in place, the practice persists for a variety of complex reasons. Men exercise the majority of power in nearly every aspect of life, which restricts women’s and girls’ exercise of their rights and denies them an equal role in their households and communities. Gender inequality can put a much higher value on boys and men than on girls and women. When girls from birth lack the same perceived value as boys, families and communities may unfortunately discount the benefits of educating and investing in their daughters’ development. In addition, girls’ value may shift once they reach puberty. Child marriage is often seen as a safeguard against premarital sex, and the duty to protect the girl from sexual harassment and violence is transferred from father to husband. However, girls need education, health, social, and livelihood skills to become fully empowered citizens.
Even more important is helping already married girls avoid early pregnancy and ensuring that when they become pregnant, they have access to appropriate care during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum (including access to family planning).
In today’s demographic realities, reducing child marriage, delaying pregnancies, and securing the rights of young women to education can help offset an increase in population. Bringing an end to child marriage, therefore, is a matter of national and political priorities. It requires effective legal frameworks that protect the rights of the children involved, and it requires enforcement of those laws in compliance with human rights standards. It also requires the engagement and support of families and communities who, when they do stand up for their daughters and granddaughters, will provide change in otherwise harmful social norms and traditions. Most of all, it requires the empowerment of girls themselves so that they are positioned to make decisions at the right time; exercise free and informed consent, make the decisions that will safeguard their own futures, and transform their own lives, which will enable them to live in the dignity to which they are entitled.