Child marriage: facts and how to help

Updated May 02, 2019
10-minute read
UNICEF estimates that 700 million women alive in the world today were married as girls. A third of them were married before their 15th birthday. And the stats don’t exactly paint a positive picture of the future: Each year, another 12 million girls under the age of 18 become child brides. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, another 8 girls will have gotten married.

At its core, child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights. There are many factors at play when a child ends up in early or forced marriage – from financial or food insecurity to cultural or social norms. Whatever the cause, early marriage compromises a child’s development and severely limits her opportunities in life.
 
Get the facts on child marriage and learn how you can help.
 
  1. What is child marriage?
  2. Where does child marriage happen?
  3. Why does child marriage happen?
  4. Why is child marriage so harmful?
  5. What is World Vision doing to help end child marriage?
  6. How can I help end child marriage?

1. What is child marriage?
Child marriage is a legal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are children under the age of 18. While early marriage is far more likely to happen to girls, in some countries, it’s not uncommon for boys to also marry before the age of 18. More often than not, a younger girl is married to an older boy or man.

2. Where does child marriage happen?
It may be difficult to imagine that there are still countries where child marriage is legal. But the reality is that it remains widespread – particularly in developing nations. Nine of the 10 countries with the highest rates are considered fragile states. It cuts across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Child marriage countries can be found in almost every region of the world – from Africa to the Middle East, Asia to Europe and even the Americas.
 
Niger, in Sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest rate of child marriage globally. 77% of girls there are married before the age of 18. Neighbouring countries like Mali, Chad and the Congo also see more than half of all girls married before their 18th birthday.
 
In terms of absolute numbers, India alone accounts for a third of the global total. With more than 15 million child brides, the South Asian nation has more instances of child marriage than any other in the world. Bangladesh comes in a distant second, with over 4 million child brides even though the legal minimum age to marry there is 18.
 
There are actually only a handful of countries that don’t specify a minimum age for people to legally marry. But even in countries where there are laws to prevent child marriage – like Bangladesh – the practice is deeply rooted and largely accepted in society. Laws are rarely enforced and there are always exceptions to the rule. Children are often allowed to marry as long as there is parental consent, regardless of their age.

Child marriage has a devastating impact on young girls. They are robbed of their childhood, face a much higher risk of abuse and health complications and are often prevented from attending school.
Child marriage has a devastating impact on young girls. They are robbed of their childhood, face a much higher risk of abuse and health complications and are often prevented from attending school.

3. Why does child marriage happen?
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. However, it is most closely linked with low levels of economic development. Overwhelmingly, child brides come from the world’s most impoverished nations.
 
Poverty
Within these contexts, girls (and women) aren’t seen as potential wage earners. Rather, they are financial burdens to their families and consequently, less valuable than boys. For parents with several children or living in extreme poverty, child marriage is simply a way to help alleviate the desperate economic conditions they find themselves in. It’s one less mouth to feed and one less education to fund.
 
In communities where a dowry needs to be paid by the girl’s family, an earlier marriage at a younger age may mean a lower expense. Younger girls would presumably have more time to dedicate to her new family and bear more children, so she might fetch a higher bride price – the amount paid by the groom in some communities to the parents of a bride.
 
Sometimes, girls are married to help offset debts, settle conflicts or as a substitute for actual money. Worse still, families may have no choice but to arrange a younger daughter’s marriage along with her sister’s, if a cheaper ‘package deal’ can be had. There are so many ways in which child marriage creates economic incentives for young girls to be married off early – whether for financial security or gain. Sadly, the practice also tends to trap these girls into a lifetime of economic disadvantage.
 
Tradition
Child marriage can also be influenced by norms and beliefs. In some societies, marriage is nothing more than a phase of womanhood. Once menstruation starts, a girl is seen as a grown woman, so the logical next steps for her in life are marriage and motherhood. Younger girls may also be perceived as more amenable, more easily shaped into an obedient wife.
 
In some places, child marriage is political. Unions are arranged to build or strengthen ties between tribes or communities. Elsewhere, it’s about family honour. Avoiding the shame of having an unmarried daughter or one who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. In many cultures, girls who have lost their virginity are considered ‘ruined’ or ‘unsuitable’ for marriage. Parents may arrange a union for their daughter while she is young to ensure she remains a virgin and to maximize her child-bearing years.
 
Survival
For other families, forced child marriage is a survival strategy. If they cannot afford to feed and educate all their children, marrying off the girls would be ‘the next best thing’ to starving, while also allowing them to give preference to boys’ schooling.
 
In fragile contexts with ongoing war or crisis, early marriage is also seen as a legitimate way to protect girls in an otherwise hostile environment. Where people have been forced from their homes, better for a girl to have the protection of her husband than to risk physical or sexual assault from strangers in refugee camps or informal tent settlements.
 
4. Why is child marriage so harmful?
Girls who marry as children are less likely to reach their fullest 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 – keeping house and raising a family, rather than going to school and playing as a child should. Her future is not of her own choosing.
 
Education
Child marriage statistics show that girls who aren’t in school face a greater risk of becoming child brides: Girls who have no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than girls who attended 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 who to marry.
 
Even for those in school, early marriage can significantly impact a girl’s ability to continue with education. Many are forced to drop out in order to focus on domestic responsibilities or to raise children of her own. 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.

Sponsored child Varsha, 11, attends school in an open-air classroom in India. Her family’s poverty and cultural traditions form a combination ripe for child marriage. But with every year Varsha stays in school, she’s less likely to marry early – like her mother did.Sponsored child Varsha, 11, attends school in an open-air classroom in India. Her family’s poverty and cultural traditions form a combination ripe for child marriage. But with every year Varsha stays in school, she’s less likely to marry early – like her mother did.

Health
Early and forced child marriage have devastating consequences on the health and development of a girl. Sexual activity is encouraged even though she is physically and emotionally unprepared to become a mother. Mom and baby are both at a higher risk of dying in childbirth. In fact, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death globally among adolescent girls aged 15-19.
 
Young girls also don’t yet have a full grasp of their sexual and reproductive health or rights. Many end up married to an older boy or man, it can be very difficult for a girl to voice her needs, particularly around issues like contraception and family planning. They are more likely to experience domestic violence or exploitation even within the context of a marriage.
 
Poverty
Poverty is one of the key causes of child marriage, but it’s also an ongoing consequence. Robbed of the chance to grow, learn and fully realize her potential, child brides are disempowered. In developing countries, where economic opportunities tend to be severely limited – they are even more so for girls and women. Many of them are left to live a life of deprivation and disadvantage. Without an education, they are less able to lift themselves and their families out of the cycle of poverty.
 
Where a couple is living in union, as if they were married but without proper legal recognition, child brides face an even greater risk of economic exploitation. The informality could leave her vulnerable to abuse without the full advantages of social recognition, citizenship and inheritance.
 
5. What is World Vision doing to help end child marriage?
Child brides aren’t the only ones harmed. The history of child marriage shows that us that communities, countries and entire generations suffer from the lasting impact. World Vision’s work in gender equality helps societies achieve more sustainable development, faster economic growth and better prospects for their children – whether they are boys or girls.

World Vision partners with families to help them understand the negative effects that early marriage can have on a young girl’s life. Nilanjona’s parents have decided to allow their daughter to continue with her education.
World Vision partners with families to help them understand the negative effects that early marriage can have on a young girl’s life. Nilanjona’s parents have decided to allow their daughter to continue with her education.

Wherever we work, we champion the rights of girls. We empower them with education and opportunities. We partner with her family and her entire community – men, women, boys and girls – to help them understand a girl’s worth and why her rights must be honoured. For programs to succeed, everyone needs to work together to help transform harmful beliefs and 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. Through the Born on Time initiative, we educate all members of a community on the importance of birth spacing, contraception and supporting women during pregnancy and motherhood.
 
6. How can I help end child marriage?
We’re slowly turning the tide on the history of child marriage. Globally, one in five girls alive today were married before they turned 18. A decade ago, it was one in four. In the 1980s, it was one in three. UNICEF estimates that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade alone – significant and meaningful progress worth celebrating.
 
But without sustained reductions in the practice of child marriage, the global number of women married as children will reach nearly 1.2 billion by 2050. More than 190 countries around the world have adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and committed to ending child marriage by 2030. In order to reach those targets, we’ll need to continue to step up our efforts.
 
You can help end child marriage by tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice that families face. When you sponsor a girl, you help provide basic necessities like nutritious food, clean water, access to education and health care. For families with girls, sponsorship helps ensure they are protected from practices like early or forced marriage.

Barbara and Lulu, both 4 years old, walk home together from school each day in Zambia.
Barbara and Lulu, both 4 years old, walk home together from school each day in Zambia.

Our Raw Hope program works in unstable countries where governments cannot or will not act to protect the rights of its people. In these unstable contexts, children and families face threats of violence, hunger, abuse and exploitation on a daily basis. When you give to Raw Hope, you can help protect vulnerable children living in the most dangerous places.
 
Complex issues like child marriage require solutions across all sectors and levels. We need to press governments to implement and enforce the laws and policies that protect children. Challenge the social norms that reinforce the idea that girls are inferior. Create safe spaces for them to speak up against harmful practices. Together, we can help girls pursue the dreams of their own future.