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Child marriage

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the practice remains widespread, in part because of persistent poverty and gender inequality. Globally, more than 1 in 5 young women (20-24 years old) was married before her 18th birthday and more than 650 million women and girls alive today were child brides.

Due to the adverse effect the current COVID-19 pandemic has specifically on women and girls, this number is likely to increase even further, as the pandemic will disrupt efforts to end the practice. This could potentially result in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place in the next decade.

Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects. Girls coerced into child marriage often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. These complications are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.

UNFPA promotes legislation and programmes designed to end child marriage. UNFPA also supports evidence-based, girl-centred investments that empower girls with the information, skills and services they need to lead healthy, educated and safe lives, helping them make a successful transition to adulthood. UNFPA also works to support the needs of married girls particularly in contraceptive use and maternal health.

Scale of the problem in the Arab states region 

The prevalence in the Middle East and North Africa is near the global average, with around 1 in 5 young women in the region having been married before their 18th birthday and 1 in 25 before their 15th birthday. This means that the region is now home to nearly 40 million child brides, including currently married girls and women who were first married in childhood. According to UNICEF’s global databases of 2019, 17% of women aged 20 to 24 years in Egypt, 13% in Morocco, 28% in Iraq, 8% in Jordan, 6% in Lebanon and 3% in Algeria were first married or in union before age 18.

In the past 25 years, the prevalence of child marriage across the region has dropped from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 young women, however, progress appears to have stalled in the past decade. In order to meet the target of the Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate the practice by 2030, substantial acceleration will be needed.

Married adolescent girls are often unable to effectively negotiate sex, or the use of contraceptive methods, leaving them vulnerable to early pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that child, forced, and temporary marriages and “tourist” marriages are paving the way for new forms of trafficking in girls and women that are distinctive to the Arab states region.

Currently, the Arab states region is highly unstable, with ongoing conflicts and large scale humanitarian emergencies putting women and girls at an increased risk of violence and child marriage, which is now expected to be further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, various factors exacerbate the risk of child marriage, with a disproportionate impact on girls. Gender inequality is a root cause of child marriage in all contexts, including in humanitarian settings.  Faced with insecurity, increased risks of sexual and gender-based violence and the breakdown of rule of law, families and parents may see child marriage as a coping mechanism to deal with increased economic hardship, to protect girls from sexual violence, or to protect the honor of the family in response to the disruption of social networks and routines. Child marriage is also exacerbated among internally displaced people. In addition, forced child marriage is used as a tactic in conflict.  

UNFPA’s role and response

UNFPA is committed to delivering concrete solutions to child marriage, with an emphasis on efforts that can be scaled-up and that produce measurable results. UNFPA works with governments and civil society partners, at all levels, to promote and protect the human rights of girls and is supporting innovative campaigns and promoting legislations and programmes designed to end child marriage as well as  assisting with the development of policies, programmes and legislation to address and curtail the practice of child marriage.

In 2016, UNFPA, together with UNICEF, launched the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage in 12 of the most high-prevalence or high-burden countries: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia. The Global Programme supports households in demonstrating positive attitudes, empowers girls to direct their own futures, and strengthens the services that allow them to do so. It also addresses the underlying conditions that sustain child marriage, advocating for laws and policies that protect girls' rights while highlighting the importance of using robust data to inform such policies.

A review of work from 2016 through 2019 found that the Global Programme had:

·            Empowered 7.2 million adolescent girls

·            Supported education for 500,000 adolescent girls

·            Reached 4.2 million individuals with community dialogue

·            Reached 31 million individuals with media campaigns

·            Helped 24,000 facilities implement adolescent girl-friendly health and protection services

·            Helped 22,000 schools strengthen adolescent girl-friendly education

·            Helped 11 countries create child marriage national action plans

·            Partnered with 107 youth-led groups and 88 women’s rights organizations

 In addition to the Global Programme, UNFPA is also supporting outreach programmes advocating against child marriage in other countries of the Arab states region. These outreach programmes are, for example, engaging parents, community leaders, religious leaders, and health-care workers. UNFPA is also supporting safe spaces, legal counselling and psychosocial care for vulnerable women and girls, including those affected by early marriage.

UNFPA further empowers young people to advocate for change: Through the UNFPA-supported Y-Peer programme, youth – including refugees – are spreading information and raising awareness about the harms of child marriage to their friends and peer networks.

In relation to child marriage in humanitarian settings, UNFPA Arab States Regional Office takes part in a joint programme investigating the key drivers of child marriage as well as the prevalence in order to study whether child marriage increases during times of crisis. The study is being conducted in collaboration with Women’s Refugee Commission and Johns Hopkins University in Djibouti, Yemen, Egypt and Iraq.

Denial of rights

Child marriage denies girls the right to choose if, whom, and when to marry – one of life’s most important decisions. Choosing one's partner is an adult decision, one that should be made freely and without fear or coercion. On this, virtually all countries agree.

Despite near-universal commitments to end child marriage, as mentioned above, 21% of young women (20-24 years old) globally were married before their 18th birthday and more than 650 million women and girls alive today were child brides. While child marriage is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, it also takes place in high-income countries.

While global child marriage rates are slowly falling, reductions in the number of girls being married off will not keep pace with population growth if efforts to counteract the practice are not accelerated. Without urgent efforts, the total number of child marriages will likely increase by 2030, and more than 120 million additional girls will marry before their 18th birthday with the next decade.

Many international agreements outlaw child marriage, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 also called on countries to eliminate child marriage.

Impact on a girls’ health, future and development

Child marriage directly threatens girls’ health and well-being. Marriage is often followed by pregnancy, even if a girl is not yet physically or mentally ready. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. Globally, the leading cause of death for 15-19 year-old girls is complications from pregnancy and childbirth.Girls who are married may also be exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and 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.

When girls marry, they are often forced to drop out of school so they can assume household responsibilities. This is a denial of their right to an education. Early marriage also limits their opportunities, including future employment prospects, and has long-term effects on their families. Girls who leave school have worse health and economic outcomes than those who stay in school, and eventually their children fare worse as well.

Cumulatively, child marriage takes an enormous toll on communities, workforces and economies, and the loss is carried over generations.

Factors contributing to child marriage

Child marriage is the toxic product of poverty and gender inequality. Girls in child marriages also tend to be less educated and to live in rural areas. Many impoverished parents believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ future by ensuring that another family will be responsible for their care. This is also true in humanitarian crises, when many parents fear they will be unable to protect or care for their daughters. Some mistakenly believe marriage will protect their daughters from sexual violence, which is often exacerbated in times of crisis.

Some parents see their daughters as burdens or commodities. Dowries complicate the issue: 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.

How to end child marriage

Ending child marriage requires action at many levels. Existing laws against child marriage should be enforced, especially when girls at risk of child marriage, or who are already married, seek protection and justice. And where it is not yet the case, the legal age of marriage should be raised to 18. But laws only provide the framework for action against child marriage. Practices people deem acceptable are unlikely to disappear through legislation alone.

Governments, civil society and other partners must work together to ensure girls have access to education, health information and services, and life-skills training. Girls who are able to stay in school and remain healthy enjoy a broader range of options, and they are more likely to be able to avoid child marriage. 

And, importantly, girls who are already married need to be supported. These girls need reproductive health services to help them avoid early pregnancy. Those who become pregnant need access to appropriate care throughout pregnancy, childbirth and in the post-partum period. They should be supported, if they choose, in returning to formal or non-formal school.

Together, these measures lead to higher levels of gender equality, healthier women and children, and, in turn, stronger societies and more vibrant economies. No society can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent, or personal exploitation that child marriage causes.

Last updated May 2020