“I cried because I was too young to get married,” Gloria revealed. “I did not want to. I did not understand the meaning of marriage. I was so scared.”

In many homes across the world, parents encourage and sometimes force their young daughters into marriage, hoping that it will bring financial stability to the family. Every year, an estimated 12 million girls are getting married before they turn 18. That is 23 girls per minute. If no serious action is taken, the number is expected to rise to a staggering 150 million by 2030.

Child marriage is highly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 38% of girls married before their 18th birthday. In Southern Asia, its 30% and 25% in Latin America and the Caribbean. The rates are lower in the Middle East and North Africa with 17%, and 11% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

By definition, child marriage is a formal or informal union where one or both parties are under the age of 18. There is a paucity of data related to child marriage among boys. But, what available data tells us is that girls are more likely to get married before boys in different parts of the world. Likewise, the costs of child marriage are relatively lower for boys than for girls.

The issue of child marriage has gained traction in the past decade, with many governments and international organisations recognising the negative impact it has on national development, poverty reduction and social justice. Child marriage is an obstacle to achieving many development goals. In fact, it directly impedes the attainment of at least six of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, only a handful of affected countries have adopted effective strategies to put an end to it.

child marriage

The Driving Factors

Child marriage is a life-changing reality for many girls across the world. It is linked to poverty, lack of education, insecurity, and tradition. However, the severity of each of these factors varies across different countries. These factors are also exacerbated by the extremely flawed, yet widespread perception that girls are inferior to boys.

Culture and tradition play a huge role in child marriage practices, especially in developing countries. In many societies, girls are not valued and most times are seen as a burden to their family. As a result, giving out a daughter at a young age, to a financially fit suitor is often seen as a potential escape from the trap of poverty. For instance, in Southern Ethiopia, marriage payments often serves as an important source of income for many families.

Girls are also more susceptible to child marriage in regions with high levels of insecurity. Some families are convinced that they are protecting their daughter from physical and sexual violence by marrying them off. Child marriage is also driven by patriarchy and the excessive desire to police female sexuality. Parents are of the belief that by marrying their daughters off at an early age, they are limiting their exposure to pre-marital sexual activities, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

At What Cost?

Child marriage is not only detrimental to the victims but to society as a whole. According to a report by the World Bank, child marriage will cost developing nations trillions of dollars by 2030.

Many young girls are coerced into marriages with false promises that their partner will fund their education. However, in most cases, they fall pregnant and get stuck at home raising their children. Child marriage significantly reduces education prospects for young girls. Conversely, having access to education opportunities could potentially reduce the chances of early marriage.

Also, in countries like Nigeria, where the rapidly growing population is becoming an emerging concern, ending child marriage will significantly lead to a decline in population growth in the long run. The World Bank reported that by 2030, welfare gains as a result of lower population growth could reach an estimated $500 billion annually. For example, in Uganda, the benefit from declining fertility rates would be equivalent to $2.4 billion.

Labour market earnings are also affected by child marriage. Women who get married as children earn 9% lower than they would have if they married later. In Nigeria, this is equivalent to an annual productivity loss of around $7.6 billion. Child marriage not only robs girls of their childhood, it also robs them of their future.

 Untying the Knots 

Child marriage is one of the many factors that perpetuate the issue of gender inequality in the world. Not only does it affect child brides, it also affects their children in several ways. It has an impact on their educational attainment and limits their ability to compete in the workforce in the future. It also leads to a higher risk of exposure to health complications for both mothers and their children. Finally, it reduces the agency and autonomy women have, and increases the risks of intimate partner violence.

To a large extent, child marriage is a human rights violation that has severe consequences. While the practice is slowly declining, we still have a long way to go to fully eliminate it. The implementation of a proper legislative framework and action plans in affected countries are paramount to abolish the absurd practice. There is also a need for an attitudinal change; particularly in regions where it is seen as culturally acceptable. Governments have to initiate conversations and collaborations across key sectors such as health, education and justice, to inform the masses about the ramifications of the practice and generate a genuine shift in views to holistically address the issue.

Putting an end to child marriage is not only morally and ethically sensible, it is also economically beneficial. Every girl deserves to have her “happily ever after” – on her own terms.

Thanks for Reading,

Stephannie