There are no major religious traditions that require child marriage. Yet child marriage persists, across many cultures and religions. But it would be wrong to say that child marriage warrants protection as a cultural or religious practice. Governments around the world have overwhelmingly, and independently, decided that child marriage is a grave violation of human rights.
In places where child marriage persists, evidence about its harms are usually convincing to policymakers, community leaders, religious leaders and parents. In fact, there are many examples of cultural and religious leaders taking a strong stance against child marriage. But prohibitions themselves are not always sufficient; because child marriage is typically the result of a lack of choices, and because it is viewed as the norm, families and communities also need alternatives.
How can the world end child marriage?
Laws prohibiting child marriage need to be enacted, strengthened and enforced. And more attention is needed to related laws such as on bride price and dowry, marital rape, birth and marriage registration, and mandatory schooling.
But laws alone will not end child marriage.
Fundamentally, gender equality must be advanced. When educating daughters is considered as worthwhile as educating sons, when communities – both men and women – give equal weight to the future potential of girls and boys, there is less motivation to engage in child marriage.
In addition, when adolescent girls and boys are empowered with information about their sexual and reproductive health, when they are able to decide freely and responsibly matters related to their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, they are less likely to want to marry before age 18.
Improved circumstances for families also eliminate the incentive to marry off children. For example, where parents fear for their daughters’ safety, better security is needed. And extreme poverty, which drives so many child marriages, must be eradicated. For this, many changes are needed, including social safety nets for girls and their families, as well as improved access to education, health services and economic opportunities.
Girls can play an important role in ending child marriage – when they know their rights and have access to the right information and opportunities.
The United Nations has seen that when girls are empowered to stand up for themselves, they can persuade their families to delay or cancel engagements. Instead, they can stay in school, gain skills and support their families economically. Many have been inspired to become advocates and leaders in their communities.
UN and its partners are now working to bring these changes to the most vulnerable girls. The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is reaching girls in 12 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and mobilizing a movement against child marriage globally. This programme is increasing girls’ access to education and health-care services, and it is educating parents and communities on the consequences of child marriage. It is also contributing to a more girl-friendly legal and policy environment, and generating data on what works to address child marriage and related issues such as adolescent pregnancy, gender-based violence and HIV.
What is the difference between child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage?
People occasionally refer to the term “child, early and forced marriage.” This creates the impression that these terms are distinct. In fact, they are overlapping.
Child marriage and early marriage largely refer to the same thing: marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. However, early marriage is also sometimes used to describe marriages in which one or both spouses are 18 or older, but with a compromised ability to grant consent. For example, the marriage of a 19-year-old who is not physically or emotionally mature, or who does not have sufficient information about her choices, would be considered an early marriage.
Forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses do not give full and free consent, regardless of age. Forced marriage can also refer to a union in which one or both spouses are unable to end or leave the marriage.
Because in most countries children are not considered able to give legal consent, all child marriages are sometimes considered forced marriages. However, there are many instances of two adolescents under the age of 18 marrying each other voluntarily.
What does teen pregnancy have to do with child marriage?
In the developing world, around 90 per cent of adolescent births (those among girls 15-19 years old) take place among girls who are already married. This means that child marriage is often a precursor to early pregnancy, which poses a host of health risks to girls whose bodies may not yet be mature enough for motherhood. Globally, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.
In some places, the causality is reversed. While most adolescent childbearing occurs within marriage, it is not uncommon for first births that occur within marriage to be the result of premarital conceptions. Teenage pregnancy is often an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in countries all over the world where communities see pregnancy outside marriage as shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.