Some of the numbers on child brides are eye popping. In Niger, 75 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthdays, and 36 percent of them are married before their 15th birthdays. In Chad, Bangladesh, and Guinea, more than 60 percent of girls are married before age 18. According to UNICEF, some 14 million girls are child brides every year.
The human implications of these almost medieval marriage practices around the globe are appalling. Such early marriage casts young girls into enormous peril, leaving them far more at risk of violence and abuse and often ending their hopes for education or better lives. For many young girls, child marriage is tantamount to life-threatening health risks, including exposure to HIV/AIDS. Do you think a poor, 16-year-old girl will have much luck demanding that her older husband wear a condom? In places such as Niger, forced child marriage increasingly resembles sex trafficking, with desperately poor families often essentially selling their young daughters to men from nearby countries. Indeed, the drought and food crisis that has gripped much of the Sahel in recent years has sparked concerns that child marriage will accelerate in the region as families are forced into ever more dire straits.
And with child marriage comes child pregnancy—in no small part because young girls usually have the highest levels of unmet need for contraception. A girl who gives birth before age 15 is five times more likely to die during childbirth than a peer in her 20s, making pregnancy and childbirth the largest killer of girls between ages 15 and 19 in the developing world. Young girls are also particularly prone to serious injuries to the birth canal, including obstetric fistula. Fistula, which leaves its sufferers incontinent, is a devastating condition that is entirely preventable. More than three-quarters of girls and women with fistula endured obstructed deliveries that lasted three days or longer.
So what can we do?
Encouragingly, ending child marriage has become an increasingly high-profile advocacy effort around the world. UNFPA has dedicated recent major reports to this effort. The World Bank has made the case for ending child marriage from an economic perspective, pointing out that developing nations suffer billions of dollars in lost gross domestic product, or GDP, from girls marrying young and dropping out of school. Girls Not Brides has brought together more than 300 nongovernmental organizations from 50 different countries to push for policy change. Leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson have been outspoken on the topic.
The concerted international push has led more countries to start changing their laws. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries in the Middle East that have not established a minimum age for marriage. Pressure to pass such a law has mounted in Yemen after the horrific case in which an 8-year-old girl died from internal injuries at the hands of her 40-year-old husband on her wedding night. And between 1992 and 2006, India decreased the incidence of girls getting married before age 15 by more than 30 percent.
But changing marriage patterns is a much more complicated and difficult endeavor than just passing a law, and it goes to the very heart of social mores and customs. First and foremost, ending child marriage requires creating more educational and economic opportunities for girls and their families, so that the pressures to sell off daughters are considerably diminished. Ending child marriage is inherently intertwined with the broader challenge of reducing extreme poverty across the developing world. Changes in national laws also need to be coupled with grassroots community efforts to educate families and local leaders about the sensible alternatives to traditional practice. We also need targeted efforts to assist girls who are already child brides if we hope to emerge from this vicious cycle that treats daughters as a disposable commodity.
Child marriage is also a challenge that the developed world needs to approach with some humility, given its own track record. It is still legal in a number of European countries to get married below age 18 even without parental or court approval, including in Monaco, at age 15; in Andorra, at age 16; and in Switzerland, at age 17. In Albania and the Netherlands, teens can get married before they turn 18 if they are pregnant. In the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, minors can get married if they have some combination of court and/or parental approval.
In developed countries, including the United States, reducing the teen pregnancy rate has directly translated into reducing the number of minors propelled into early marriages. In the developing world, the problem is flipped, and ending child marriage will have a powerful impact on reducing unwanted child pregnancies and infant mortality rates.
Here’s to hoping that the next generation of children only learn about child marriage in their history books.
John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.