Sara Tasneem was just 15 years old when she was married off to a man 13 years older than her in a spiritual ceremony. And just a year later, at 16, she was legally wedded to him in Nevada. It took her nearly a decade to get out of a marriage she'd never agreed to in the first place, she told Global Citizen.
Yet, as shocking as Tasneem's story is, it's far from uncommon. Tasneem is one of more than 250,000 children married in the United States over the past couple of decades. Globally, 650 million girls and women alive today were married before their 18th birthdays. A third were even married before their 15th birthdays. And, without major efforts to stop child marriage worldwide, another 150 million girls are expected to be married by 2030, according to UNICEF.
Child marriage is the formal (or informal) marriage of a child under the age of 18. Most often this is the marriage of a young girl to an older boy or man.
Many girls who are married off before they turn 18 or are forced into early marriages are made to leave school. This deprives these girls of their right to education and future independence. Child brides are also more likely to experience domestic violence.
Young girls who are married off are more likely to experience early pregnancy and have children while still physically immature, they are at higher risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications. And their babies have a reduced chance of survival too, according to the World Health Organization.
Child brides who have children may also be psychologically unprepared and ill-equipped to become mothers at such a young age.
“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.
When a young girl is married off, she may be separated from her family and friends. She may be transferred to her husband like a piece of property. In some places, including India, guardianship rights over her will even be transferred to her husband. In an instant, she will have to drop out of school and is expected to become a woman who keeps house and raises a family, rather than play and study like the child she is.
Child marriage systematically disempowers girls by robbing them of a chance to learn, grow, and fully realize their potential. It ensures that they remain dependent on others all their lives, strips them of their agency, makes them vulnerable to abuse, and can trap them in a cycle of poverty.
Where Does Child Marriage Happen?
Child marriage is still prevalent in many parts of the world, and affects girls and women from across communities. Girls from wealthy families in Bangladesh have been forced into marriages as children. Syrian refugee girls displaced by conflict have been married off before they were ready. American girls from Christian families have been victims of child marriage. And girls living in poverty in Myanmar have been married off to older men in China.
However, child marriage occurs in disproportionately high numbers in developing countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, where 4 in 10 girls are married under the age of 18, and in South Asia, where about 30% of girls under 18 are married, have the highest levels of child marriage, according to UNICEF.
India is considered to have the most child brides of any country in the world. More than 15 million women between the ages of 20 and 24 in India today who were married as children, according to UN data. Neighboring Bangladesh ranks second, with nearly 4.5 million women married as children. Nigeria and Brazil, which each have more than 3 million women who were married before they turned 18. also have some of the largest number of child brides globally.
In Niger, 76% of women, who were between the ages of 20 and 24 in 2018, were married before age 18. Most of their husbands are at least 10 years older than them, according to UNICEF. Approximately 68% of girls are married by age 18 in the Central African Repulic and Chad, meaning most girls in these countries will be married before they become adults.
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. While many countries have 18 as the minimum marriageable age, most allow younger children to marry with parental consent, according to the World Policy Center. At least 13 countries have exceptions to the minimum age of marriage in cases where a girl is pregnant.
Sudan remains the only country with no explicit legal minimum age of marriage. The country has the 16th-highest number of child marriages in the world. Girls in Sudan are often married off when they are considered to have reached puberty, though children as young as 10 can be married with a judge's consent.
Though many countries have laws setting the minimum age of marriage somewhere between 16 and 18. However, such legislation is not always enforced and frequently includes legal loopholes that allow children to be married earlier. In the US, all but two states — Delaware and New Jersey — have legal exceptions that make it possible for children younger than 18 to be married.
Even when laws make marriage before the age of 18 illegal, as in the United States, child marriage still happens. But before New Jersey banned child marriage once and for all , the state allowed an estimated 3,481 children to married from 1995 and 2012. These children were mostly between the ages of 16 and 17 and the majority received parental consent to do so. About 163 marriages involving children between ages 13 and 15 were approved by judges. And approximately 91% of these marriages were between a child and an adult.
In Bangladesh, 18 is technically the minimum age of marriage for girls (the minimum age is 21 for men). Unfortunately, the law is rarely enforced. In recent years the government has considered policies that would grant exceptions for child marriage, making it legal in some cases.
The Main Drivers of Child Marriage
No matter where in the world child marriage happens, its drivers are similar — poverty, “family honor,” and conflict. But the common driver in all these contexts is gender inequality.
Child marriages are symptomatic of gender-based discrimination against girls and cultural norms that value girl less than boys.
In some places, child marriage is a cultural norm. In southern Ethiopia, marriage is simply considered the next phase of womanhood, following FGM and menstruation. But in many cases, the practice of child marriage arises out of social norms, cultural beliefs, and poverty. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “global data shows that girls from the poorest 20% of families are twice as likely to marry before 18 as girls whose families are among the richest 20%.”
Money plays a big part in the prevalence of child marriage in much of the world.
In cultures that do not see girls and women as potential wage earners, they’re may be 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 may 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 to negotiate a lower bride price. Or to simultaneously arrange a younger daughter’s marriage together with an older daughter's — 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.
Dowries paid by the bride’s family are not standard in all cultures. In some sub-Saharan African countries, 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.
Though it is frequently a key motivator, money is not the only reason for child marriages. Girls who are sexually active before marriage are considered "ruined" or "unsuitable" for marriage in some cultures. As a result, families marry off their young daughters to ensure they remain virgins until marriage, prevent babies out-of-wedlock, and maximize her childbearing years. In cultures where female subservience is valued, a younger girl may be seen as more ideal for marriage, because she can be more easily controlled and shaped into an obedient wife.
Unfortunately, because of the cultural emphasis on virginity, child marriage is sometimes 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 conflict and the dangers they are exposed to in refugee camps. 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.
In #Jordan's Syrian refugee communities, child marriage has risen dramatically over the past five years. After fleeing #Syria, Qamar, 14, was married two years ago: "I was a child when I married and now I'm a child, with a child." She feels a huge sense of responsibility for her baby Raneem, but can¹t read or write nor go to school. "I feel trapped." #EndChildMarriage On 3/17/16, 1:36 PM, "Marion Hart" <email@example.com> wrote:
“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 of her decision to marry her daughter off.
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). Meanwhile, orphaned Syrians in Jordan’s refugee camps have also been married off by relatives, who cannot or do not want to support them. As of 2014, a third of refugee marriages in Jordan included a girl under the age of 18.
Progress to Date
The Global Goals have set a target to end child marriage by 2030. 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 announced in 2016 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 also enacted 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 under the law. The harsh sentencing is intended to deter parents from marrying off their daughters but advocates question whether it benefits the girl to imprison her parents.
Though there has been progress in addressing child marriage, there are still 22 million girls who are married right now. And more are getting married every day.
Ending Child Marriage
To end child marriage, individuals, lawmakers, and world leaders need to challenge norms that reinforce the idea that girls are inferior to boys. Instead, we need to empower girls to be their own agents of change. Providing girls with equal access to quality education will enable them to support themselves and lead fulfilled, independent lives. Creating safe spaces and channels for them to speak up and speak out will allow their voices to be heard.
Girls who are allowed to stay with their families and stay in school are able to more fully engage in society. They are able to become financially independent, to care for their families and themselves — and ultimately, to work toward ending poverty.
And lawmakers and leaders must level the law to remove all forms of gender discrimination from legislation and ensure that girls and women are equally valued as people and protected from child marriage and other types of gender-based violence and harmful practices.