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Girls & Women

Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know

@stephsinclair / @LifeofSigh via Twitter

Child marriage is the formal (or informal) marriage of a child under the age of 18 — generally the marriage of a young girl to an older boy or man. There are approximately 700 million women around the world today who were married as girls; a third of them were married before their 15th birthdays.

Forcing a young girl into marriage generally means she will be separated from her family and friends and transferred to her husband like a piece of property. In an instant, she will be expected to become a woman who keeps house and raises a family, rather than play and study like the child she is.

Child brides are often made to leave school, are more likely to experience domestic violence, and are at higher risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications — as are the children of child brides.

Young girls who are married off are more likely to have children while still physically immature. They are psychologically unprepared and unequipped to become mothers, which means they tend to have more health problems during pregnancy and childbirth due to inadequate health care and their babies have a reduced chance for survival.

“Motherhood is hard. When [babies] get sick, you don’t know why. I don’t have experience and don’t know what to do with him, probably because of my age. I sleep very little,” a 14-year-old wife and mother told the New York Times.

By robbing girls of a chance to learn, grow, and fully realize their potential, child marriage systematically disempowers them. It ensures that they remain dependent on others all their lives, strips them of their agency, and hands control over their lives to someone else.

Where’s the wedding?

Child marriage is defined differently in each country, and occurs in disproportionately high numbers in developing countries, particularly in Africa and the South Asia region.

But because a child under the age of 18 is just that — a child — he or she should not be forced into marriage for any reason.

Whether the marriage is recognized under law, or is an informal union, forced marriage violates girls’ right to education, security, and health. It is a form of discrimination against girls and a violation of human rights and so it is a global problem.

India has more than 10 million child brides, the most of any country in the world, followed by Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Brazil. Bangladesh has more than 2 million child brides, despite the legal minimum age of marriage being 18; unfortunately, the law is rarely enforced.

In Niger, 77 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before age 18, more than half of these girls’ husbands are at least 10 years older than them. 68 percent of girls are married by age 18 in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 55 percent in Mali. In these countries, most girls will be married before they turn 18.

Child marriage occurs in these areas due to high levels of poverty, cultural norms, and lax, if any, laws — but it doesn’t only happen there. The World Policy Center reports that 88 percent of countries have 18 as the minimum marriageable age, but allow younger children to marry with parental consent.

In Guatemala, 14 is the legal minimum marriageable age with parental consent, while Yemen has yet to set a legal minimum.

Even when there are laws making marriage before the age of 18 illegal, as in the United States, child marriage still happens. In New Jersey, 3,481 children were married between 1995 and 2012, mostly with parental consent between the ages of 16 and 17; however, 163 marriages were approved by judges for children between ages 13 and 15. 91 percent of these marriages were between a child and an adult.

No matter where in the world child marriage happens, its drivers are similar —  “family honor,” economic gain, security, and control.

Why does child marriage happen?

Child marriages are symptomatic of gender-based discrimination against girls and cultural norms that value girl less than boys.

In some cases, child marriage is just the norm. In southern Ethiopia, marriage is just the next phase of womanhood, following FGM and menstruation.

But in most cases, child marriage is the result of social norms, cultural beliefs, and poverty. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “global data shows that girls from the poorest 20 percent of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20 percent.”

Money plays a big part in the prevalence of child marriage.

In some cultures, girls and women are not seen as potential wage earners — they’re considered a financial burden to the family. In these cases, families living in poverty who have several children may arrange a marriage for their child to reduce their economic burden: One less daughter to take care of means one less mouth to feed and one less education to pay for. Girls are also married off to offset debts or settle conflicts, effectively acting as a substitute for money.

In cultures where there is a dowry paid by the bride’s family, it may be beneficial to arrange an early marriage for a girl for a lower bride price, or to simultaneously arrange a younger daughter’s marriage with an older daughter — a sort of cheaper, “package deal.” An example of this occurred in Yemen: 13-year-old girl married a man twice her age, while her brother married her husband’s sister. The girl died four days later from internal bleeding likely due to sexual activity.

« In many societies, marriage is a celebrated institution signifying a union between two adults and the beginning of their future together. Unfortunately, millions of girls still suffer from a vastly different marriage experience every year. Worldwide, many brides are still children, not even teenagers. So young are some girls that they hold onto their toys during the wedding ceremony. Usually these girls become mothers in their early teens, while they are still children themselves. The practice, though sheathed in tradition, can result in profound negative consequences for the girls, their families and their entire communities. Join us in our mission to protect girls’ rights and end child marriage. » And since every voice counts, share, like, support and follow @TooYoungToWed #ENDCHILDMARRIAGE #TOOYOUNGTOWED « Dans de nombreuses sociétés, le mariage est une institution célébrée signifiant union entre deux adultes et début de leur avenir ensemble. Malheureusement, pour des millions de filles mariées chaque année, la réalité est infiniment plus sombre. Dans le monde entier, de nombreuses épouses sont encore des enfants, pas même des adolescentes. Certaines de ces filles sont si jeunes qu’elles ne lâchent pas leurs jouets pendant la cérémonie du mariage. Ces filles deviennent généralement mères au début de leur adolescence alors qu’elles sont encore enfants elles-mêmes. La pratique, bien qu’ancrée dans la tradition, peut avoir des conséquences profondément préjudiciables pour les filles, leur famille et leur communauté entière. Protégeons les droits des filles. Mettons fin au mariage précoce. » Et parce qu’une seule voix peut faire toute la différence, partagez, likez et abonnez-vous à @TooYoungToWed #ENDCHILDMARRIAGE #TOOYOUNGTOWED Photo credit: #childabuse #bride #kids #girls #girlsrights #wedding #marriage #bridesforsale #daughtersforsale

A photo posted by caroline (@caronguyen) on

Dowries paid by the bride’s family are not standard in all cultures; in sub-Saharan Africa, the opposite is often true — a price is paid to the bride’s family for the girl, and a younger girl fetches a higher price.

"Families are using child marriage, as an alternative, as a survival strategy [against…] food insecurity,” UNICEF's chief child protection officer in Niger has said.

On top of that, families who cannot afford to feed or educate their daughters may view marriage as her next best option.

Radha, 15, observes herself in a cracked mirror the day before her wedding in the state of Rajasthan, India. Her 5-year-old cousin was married later that night, images of that wedding can be seen on the @tooyoungtowed website. Despite recent advances in the global effort to end child marriage, the practice of marrying girls off at young ages persists in more than 50 countries and spans many cultures and all major religions. National Geographic Magazine featured this village in its June 2011 story on child marriage. Too Young to Wed a nonprofit NG photographer Stephanie Sinclair founded not long after our story ran, is now raising funds through a week long sale of hand printed & signed photographic prints. 100% of all proceeds received will support @tooyoungtowed's programming to help girls in areas where child marriage is rampant. MAKE CHANGE WITH US by purchasing a print before the fundraiser ends on Sept. 20th, visit: TOOYOUNGTOWED.ORG/PRINTSALE. Photo by Stephanie Sinclair @stephsinclairpix #photojournalism #photooftheday #india #tooyoungtowed #endchildmarriage #girls #letgirlslearn #girlseducation #makechangewithus #wedding #bride #color #beauty

A photo posted by Too Young To Wed (@tooyoungtowed) on

Though it is frequently a key motivator, money is not the only reason for child marriages. Many cultures’ non-virgin girls are considered ruined and unsuitable for marriage, as a result, families marry off their young daughters to ensure they remain virgins until marriage, to prevent babies out-of-wedlock, and to maximize her childbearing years. A younger girl can also be more easily controlled and shaped into an obedient wife.

Unfortunately, because of the cultural emphasis on virginity, child marriage is seen as a legitimate way to protect girls in unsafe environments.

One mother in Bangladesh explained, “she knew it was wrong to marry [her daughter off] very early, but … marriage is seen as a cover of respect and protection by women. By not going to school, it reduces the risk of being sexually active outside the house or being harassed while commuting.”

In Syria and in tightly packed refugee camps, mothers are afraid for their daughters’ safety and “respectability.” This fear has lead to an increase in the number of child marriages in Syria. Mothers are suddenly finding themselves the head of the household for the first time, fearful of impact of the ongoing war they believe that their daughters are less likely to be physically or sexually assaulted and harassed if they are married and have the protection of a man.

“It was much better for her to get married, even though she was still a child, than to be raped by a soldier,” one mother said.

Meanwhile, orphaned Syrians in Jordan’s refugee camps are being married off by relatives. Desperate to protect their daughters, mothers are marrying off their own daughters, hoping to give them better lives — or hoping men from the Gulf States seeking brides will pay for a young wife (the going price is reportedly between $2,800 and $14,000). A third of refugee marriages in Jordan now include a girl under the age of 18.

Taking action and making progress

Child marriage is slowly becoming less common around the world. Today, one in four girls was married as a child, as opposed to one in three in the 1980s.

The Global Goals have set a target to end child marriage by 2030 and the UN Human Rights Council reached a consensus and adopted a resolution against child marriage. International efforts have been supported by the national efforts of countries like Burkina Faso, Nepal, and Egypt that have all developed strategies and action plans to bolster their current efforts to end child marriage. Guatemala and Chad have raised their minimum age of marriage.

Tanzania recently announced that a man who marries or impregnates a girl of school-going age faces 30 years in prison. "Girls who are married off at a young age are being denied the freedom to make informed decisions later in life," said the head of the Tanzanian women's rights group TAMWA. However, Tanzania’s law exempts child marriages where parental consent was given.

Gambia is taking it one step further with a strict ban on child marriage that sentences not only a man who marries a child to 20 years in prison, but also the girl’s parents. People with knowledge of the plans and marriage, but did not report the marriage, could also receive a 10-year sentence. While this harsh law will hopefully deter parents from marrying off their daughters, it also raises the question of whether or not children would be better off without their parents in this situation.

Though there has been progress there are still 22 million girls who are married right now, and many more getting married every day.

Where do we go from here?

We need to challenge norms that reinforce the idea that girls are inferior to boys and we need to empower girls to be their own agents of change. Providing girls with equal access to quality education and allowing them to complete their studies will enable them to support themselves and lead fulfilled, independent lives. And we need to hear their voices by creating safe spaces and channels for them to speak up for what they want and speak out against harmful practices.

Girls who are allowed to stay with their families and stay in school are able to more fully engage in society, to become financially independent, to care for their families, and themselves — and ultimately, to work toward ending poverty.

We need to level the law and criminalize gender-based discrimination against girls to ensure that they are equally valued as people, so that these girls can grow in the empowered women they were always meant to be.