It can be hard to imagine why someone would choose to have their child married off, but for millions of people, child marriage can seem like the best or the only option.
Daughters are frequently seen as burdens or commodities because of pervasive gender inequality. Impoverished parents often believe marriage will secure a daughter’s future by making a husband or his family responsible for her care. This may be the case when parents face economic hardships or when girls are forced by poverty or circumstance to drop out of school.
In places where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, creating an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off early. In places where the groom’s family pays a bride price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.
Parents – especially in humanitarian crises – often view marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual violence. Child marriage rates have been known to increase during the chaos of war, as families endure both economic instability and fear of violence.
Yet child marriage itself leads to girls experiencing high levels of sexual, physical and emotional violence from their intimate partners.
Although most adolescent pregnancies in the developing world take place among girls who are already married, in some places, teenage pregnancy prompts parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in both wealthy and poor countries where communities consider pregnancy outside of marriage to be shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.
And not all child marriages are the result of parents’ or guardians’ decisions. Often, adolescents themselves decide to marry their partner. These marriages may be a way to exercise independence, leave home or escape difficult circumstances, including desperate poverty or family violence. Restrictions on adolescent sexuality outside of marriage also drive some adolescents to see marriage as the only way to be sexually active.
In most cases, child marriage is the result of girls and families having few choices. Overwhelmingly, when young people have a choice, they marry later.