Child marriage refers to the act of marriage before the age of 18, a cultural practice that is usually arranged by parents. Although both boys and girls may be involved in these marriages, girls tend to make up the majority of those affected. Many factors influence the decision to promote child marriage, including cultural beliefs about acceptable gender roles in society, the desire to sustain a long-standing cultural tradition, and the inability to properly provide for all members of the family because of a lack of economic resources. The practice of child marriage occurs in nearly every country around the world. This article takes a closer look at some of the effects of this practice and at the countries where it is most prevalent.
Causes of Child Marriage
Traditional gender roles, like the fact that some cultures promote young motherhood, are encouraged by sending daughters away to marry at an early age. These spouses are typically much older than the bride.
Additionally, if the family is faced with poverty and a lack of economic resources, they are often left with no other choice but to send one or all of their daughters into childhood marriage as this works to reduce the costs associated with running a household.
In many cultures around the world, male children are believed to be more valuable to the family and are therefore more desired. Childhood marriage of girls allows the family to save and then invest that money into the boys' future. It is often seen as the responsibility of male children to take care of their parents in old age.
Effects of Child Marriage
Child marriage has a widespread impact, affecting communities, families, and the child bride.
When a female child is forced to get married at a young age, her chances of obtaining a formal education are drastically reduced. Research has indicated that one of the best ways to move out of poverty is to obtain a higher education, therefore, child marriage actually works to perpetuate continued poverty within the family and the community.
Additionally, several academic studies have shown that girls in underage marriages suffer from domestic violence, both physical and mental.
Child marriage also affects the life expectancy of the bride and any children produced in the marriage. This is because a young bride very quickly becomes a young mother. Adolescent pregnancies have a greater risk of loss of life during the acts of labor and childbirth. Additionally, children born to adolescent mothers have a decreased chance of living through their first year of life when compared to children born to mature and developed mothers.
Prevalence of Child Marriage Around the World
Millions of girls enter child marriages every year. In fact, estimates indicate that 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year. This means that today, roughly 700 million women report that they were married before they turned 18 years old. Of these women, at least one-third report that they became wives under the age of 15. To put the information differently, about 25% of women in the world today were child brides.
Child marriage prevalence is calculated by conducting surveys of women between the ages of 20 and 24. The following information was compiled by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and published in its 2016 State of the World’s Children report.
According to this report, the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world is reported in South Asia. In this region, nearly half of all married women between 20 and 24 years of age report that they were child brides. This is broken down into 2 groups: those married under the age of 15 and those married between the ages of 15 and 17. In the case of South Asia, 27% of women report being married between the ages of 15 and 17, and another 17% of those polled say they were married before they turned 15 years old. Most of these marriages (a compilation of the 2 groups) occur in the following countries: Bangladesh (52% of women married before 18 years of age), India (47%), Nepal (37%), and Afghanistan (33%). Other regions in Asia also experience child marriage, like East Asia and the Pacific region, where the rate is somewhat lower. Here, 14% of married women claim they were brides between 15 and 17 years old. Another 4% of those polled reported that they were married before turning 15.
Within all of Asia, Bangladesh has the highest instance of child marriage. In this country, for example, the practice is concentrated in rural areas, where the vast majority of women are married before turning 18. In 2015, the government of this country introduced a National Action Plan to Eliminate Child Marriage. In response to this plan, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was established in 2017, although the practice continues to this day.
The second highest prevalence of child marriage in the world is found in West and Central Africa. In this region of the world, 42% of women report having married before the age of 18. Other regions in Africa follow closely behind the West and Central Africa regions. Surveys conducted by the UN in Sub-Saharan Africa found that one-quarter of the women there were married between 15 and 17 years of age. An additional 12% were married prior to turning 15 years old. This region is followed by Eastern and Southern Africa, where 33% of women polled reported that they were child brides. The lowest rates in Africa are found in the Middle East and North Africa, which report that 14% of women were married between 15 and 17 years of age and only 4% were married before turning 15.
Within all of Africa, Niger has the highest instance of child marriage. In this country, the majority all married women currently between the ages of 20 and 24 became wives before they became adults. Although South Asia has the highest instance of child marriage in terms of regions in the world, Niger is actually the country with the highest instance in the world. In this country, however, 15 years is the legal minimum age for a person to enter into a legally binding marital bond. As previously mentioned, this has a drastic impact on educational attainment in this country. For example, 81% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 in this country report that they have received no formal education. This percentage is nearly the same as the number of women who report that they were married before the age of 18.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have the 5th highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. According to the UNICEF report, 28% of the women polled in this region responded that they were child brides. Of these women, a little more than one-fifth were between the ages of 15 and 17. The remaining women were younger than 15 years of age when they were married. Within this region, most of these marriages occur within rural and indigenous communities in the following countries: Nicaragua (41%), Dominican Republic (37%), Brazil (36%), Honduras (34%), Guatemala (30%), and Mexico (23%).