|© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2244/Anita Khemka|
|Snehlata explains the harmful effects of child marriage to adolescent girls in Agolai Village, Jodhpur District, Rajasthan State. Ms. Lata is a ‘precheta’, a community educator and women’s advocate.|
Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected.
About a third of women aged 20-24 years old in the developing world were married as children. Child marriage is most common in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, but there are big differences in prevalence among countries of the same region. While data from 47 countries show that, overall, the median age at first marriage is gradually increasing, this improvement has been limited primarily to girls of families with higher incomes. Overall, the pace of change remains slow. While 48 per cent of women 45-49 years old were married before the age of 18, the proportion has only dropped to 35 per cent of women 20-24 years old. (UNICEF, Progress for Children, 2010)
Evidence shows that girls who marry early often abandon formal education and become pregnant. Maternal deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are an important component of mortality for girls aged 15–19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths each year (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009). If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19 (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009). Even if the child survives, he or she is more likely to suffer from low birth weight, under nutrition and late physical and cognitive development (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009). Child brides are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009). Finally, child marriage often results in separation from family and friends and lack of freedom to participate in community activities, which can all have major consequences on girls’ mental and physical well-being.
Where prevalent, child marriage functions as a social norm. Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden.
UNICEF works with communities to raise the age of marriage and address gender discrimination through awareness raising and community discussions at local and national levels and assists governments in strengthening national legislation, policies and services.
For more data on child marriage, visit http://www.childinfo.org
Visit the resources page for more information.
UNICEF Child Info webpage on child marriage: graphs and statistical tables
UNICEF 2011 State of the world’s children: statistical table on child marriage
UNICEF, Progress for children, achieving the MDGs with equity, 2010 (p.48)