Child marriage is actually very common. More than 650 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Twenty-one per cent of young women (20-24 years old) around the world were child brides. And while child marriage is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, it also takes place in high-income countries.
The god news is: global child marriage rates are slowly falling.
Around 2000, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. In 2017, this number was just over one in five. Rates of child marriage before age 15 also fell, from 11 per cent in 2000 to 5 per cent in 2017.
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, such as West and Central Africa, the rate of decline is slow and the total number of child marriages is projected to increase by 2030. To change this, we must accelerate our actions to end child marriage.
South Asia has seen dramatic declines in child marriage over the last decade, and now the global burden of child marriage is shifting to sub-Saharan Africa. Of the most recently married child brides, close to 1 in 3 are now in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 1 in 5 a decade ago. While sub-Saharan Africa still has some of the highest rates of child marriage, South Asia is home to the largest numbers of child brides.
Where does child marriage happen?
Child marriage takes place all over the world.
It even happens in developed countries – including the United States and United Kingdom. Many people assume that when child marriage takes place in affluent countries, it only involves immigrant communities. This is not the case. Child marriage is known to take place across a wide range of communities, ethnicities and religions.
Still, child marriage is much more common in the developing world because one of the main driving factors is poverty.
The highest rates of child marriage are seen in West and Central Africa, where over four in ten girls were married before age 18. In terms of sheer numbers, South Asia is home to the largest numbers of child brides.
How old are the children involved in child marriages?
Children can be married off at any age. The most common ages at which children are married are 16 and 17.
Marriages that take place before age 15 are considered “very early marriages.” These marriages have a particularly negative impact on girls, interrupting their educations earlier and jeopardizing their health more acutely. The prevalence of these marriages vary by country. UNFPA has found that very early marriages constituted 30 per cent or more of child marriages in 14 out of 82 low and middle-income countries for which data are available.
In some cases, children are as young as five when they are married, although this is rare. Extremely young brides and grooms are sometimes married in ceremony only, but live with their own parents until they are adolescents.
It is much more common for children to be married around or after puberty.
In circumstances where parents are under enormous pressure to marry off their daughters – for those living in extreme poverty or in conflict settings, for instance – marriages have been reported among girls around 11 or 12 because girls are seen both as being ready for marriage and at risk of sexual violence.
What is the usual age difference between a child bride and her husband?
Children who are married – and they are overwhelmingly girls – tend to have spouses who are much older. When this is the case, the girls are generally more vulnerable and less able to advocate for their needs and desires.
Demographic and health surveys (tools for collecting key health and demographic information) even track age differences between girls and their spouses. This information is used as one of a variety of factors to evaluate the well-being of girls a community.
Still, child marriages are not always unions between girls and much-older men. In some communities, it is customary to wed girls and boys who are similar ages.
Are boys ever married off while still children?
While the vast majority of child marriages involve girls, boys can also be married off.
UNFPA has found that, in all 82 low- and middle-income countries for which there are data, the prevalence of child marriage is significantly lower for males than females. Only 1 in 25 boys (3.8 per cent) marry before they reach age 18, while marriage before age 15 is practically non-existent in boys (0.3 per cent). Only 10 countries have a child marriage prevalence for boys over 10 per cent – including 16 per cent in Madagascar; 14 per cent in Pakistan; 13 per cent in Central African Republic and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic; 12 per cent in Comoros, Honduras, the Marshall Islands and Nauru; 11 per cent in Nepal; and 10 per cent in Guatemala.
Child marriage rates for boys are very low even in countries where child marriage among girls is relatively high.
What are the consequences of child marriage?
Child marriage undermines children’s human rights and derails their lives and future opportunities.
At the most basic level, it denies children the right to choose – with full and free consent and without coercion or fear – whom to marry, and when. This is one of life’s most important decisions.
And there are additional consequences. Child brides are more likely to become pregnant before their bodies are mature, increasing the risks of both maternal and newborn death and morbidity. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. In these countries, where access to sexual and reproductive health services is generally low, complications from pregnancy and childbirth can be deadly. In fact, globally, these complications are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
Children who are married off are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Contributing to this problem is the fact that girls who have dropped out of school are more vulnerable to child marriage and less likely to be equipped with information about protecting themselves from STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
Child brides are particularly vulnerable to abuse. They are less able to advocate for themselves and less able to escape abusive relationships. Mental illness is common among child brides, for example, due to their experience of violence. Girls who marry young are also more likely to think that wife beating is justified than women who marry later in life.
Married girls rarely enrol in school becauase they are expected to assume significant domestic responsibilities. This limits their future potential, and makes it harder for their families to escape poverty.
Lack of education and empowerment also mean girls are less able to advocate for the well-being of their own children. The children of child brides have higher mortality rates, worse nutritional outcomes, and tend to be less educated.
Cumulatively, child marriage takes an enormous toll on communities, workforces and economies, and the loss is carried over generations.
Is child marriage legal?
Child marriage is almost universally banned.
Two of the most broadly endorsed human rights agreements in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), address child marriage. The CRC establishes the internationally agreed definition of a child, and the right of children to health, education, protection from violence, and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, all of which are violated by child marriage.
The CEDAW states unequivocally: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” Together, these treaties have been signed or ratified by every country except one.
Still, there are some national laws that enable different interpretations of this agreed principle. Many countries permit exceptions with parental consent or under religious or customary law.
Even in places where child marriage is clearly legally prohibited, enforcement can be complicated by the fact that many child marriages – and many marriages in general – are not legally registered.
UNFPA works with governments to advocate stronger laws, policies and enforcement mechanisms to end child marriage. UNFPA is also working with men, women and young people, including adolescent girls, to address the root causes of child marriage – continuing poverty and gender inequality, and support married girls.