What do people think about on a day-to-day basis? Politics, news, work, how to fix the washing machine. But I guarantee, they haven’t thought much about underserved communities, or even more unlikely, child marriage. Most people from my country have no idea that it’s still legal. In some countries, it’s even considered appropriate. But it’s also happening right here in the U.S.
Worldwide, figures show that about 650 million girls and women alive today, or 21%, were married as children. For boys, that number is smaller, but still widespread. Child marriage increases the risk of violence and decreases the chance of a good future, especially among girls. Teenage girls are also much more likely to die in childbirth or have a stillbirth than any other age group.
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 child 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 man.
WHERE DOES CHILD MARRIAGE HAPPEN?
Child marriage is a worldwide problem, particularly in developing nations. It cuts across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines and can be found in almost every region — from Africa to the Middle East, Asia to Europe, and the Americas.
South Asia is home to 40% of the world’s child brides, due mainly to the region’s large population and the fact that child marriage has long been common here. However, India, in particular, is making real progress in ending child marriage, especially for girls under age 15.
Progress is slower in sub-Saharan Africa, the other main area of concern. At the same time, Africa’s high population growth means more girls will be at risk of child marriage.
Niger, in sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest rate of child marriage globally. About 76% of girls there are married before the age of 18. Neighboring countries like Mali and Chad also see more than half of all girls married before their 18th birthday. Read about the 10 worst places worldwide for child marriage.
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 more than 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 in their culture 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.
In today’s society, especially in the Western world, child marriage should have been illegal long ago. In other countries, the practice has decreased, but it must end.
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.
Within many impoverished contexts, girls and women aren’t seen as potential wage earners. Rather, they are considered financial burdens to their families and consequently, less valuable than boys. For parents with several children or families 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 is paid by the girl’s family, a marriage at a younger age can mean a lower expense. In other communities with a bride price — the amount paid by the groom to the parents of a bride — younger girls often get a higher price. They presumably have more time to dedicate to their new family and bear more children.
Girls are sometimes 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 secured. Overall, 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 and their children into a lifetime of economic disadvantage.
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 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 preserving a family’s honor — 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.
For other families, forced child marriage is a survival strategy. If they cannot afford to feed and educate all of their children, marrying off the girls eliminates the burden of feeding them, while also allowing parents to give preference to boys’ schooling.
In fragile contexts or where there is war or crisis, child marriage is also seen as a way to protect girls in a hostile environment. When people have been forced from their homes, they may reason that it is better for a girl to have the protection of a husband than to risk physical or sexual assault from strangers in refugee camps.
How can I help end child marriage?
- Pray for girls in cultures where child marriage is accepted and encouraged. Pray that girls would gain access to education and be protected from this unhealthy practice.
- Make a one-time donation to our girls and women education fund. You can help provide resources such as school scholarships, art and music instruction, vocational training, and gender equality training. These resources help girls to stay in school, stay unmarried through their teens, and develop their God-given abilities — ultimately building a stronger, healthier society.
- Sponsor a girl today. By investing in the life of a girl in need, you’ll help her to stay in school and avoid child marriage, all while providing access to the resources she needs to become a healthy, productive adult.