Preventing child marriage

UNICEF works to end child marriage, a rights violation that undermines the health and prospects of girls, in particular.

Two girls huddle together over a desk while one completes some schoolwork

The challenge

Child marriage – a marriage or union before the age 18 – has a disproportionate impact on girls. It curtails their education, compromises their health, exposes them to violence and traps them in poverty, undermining their prospects and potential. 

Child marriages in parts of Europe and Central Asia may reflect a hardening of gender attitudes that reinforce stereotypical roles for girls and limit their opportunities. Child marriage is often linked to patriarchal attitudes towards girls, including the need to safeguard family ‘honour’.

Girls account for the vast majority of those who marry as children.

While some boys marry before the age of 18, the vast majority of children who marry are girls, often against their will and with grave consequences.  

While rates of officially registered marriages of girls aged 15 to 19 in the region range from just over 2 per cent in Ukraine to 23 per cent in Turkey,  the true percentages may be far higher, as many child marriages are never registered.

Rates of child marriage spike among marginalized communities in particular, including Roma girls in south-eastern Europe. In parts of the Balkans, half of all Roma women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, compared to just 10 per cent nationally.

There are also spikes in child marriage for girls in parts of the Caucasus, Central Asia and in Turkey, especially in refugee and migrant populations. Child marriage increases dramatically during humanitarian emergencies, driven by social and economic pressures as well as concerns about girls’ safety. A survey in 2014, for example, found that the average age of marriage for Syrian refugee girls in Turkey was between 13 and 20 years, with many parents saying that they would not have married off their daughters at such a young age under more normal circumstances. 

Child marriage poses a serious risk to girls.

Once married, a girl’s world narrows dramatically. Child brides experience isolation from their family, friends and communities, as well as violence, abuse and exploitation. Girls who marry early often become pregnant while they are still children themselves, with great risks for their own well-being and that of their babies. 

There are clear links between child marriage and school drop-out, with girls who are married before the age of 18 less likely to be in school than their peers, and girls who drop out of school more likely to be married.

The solution

UNICEF sees ending child marriage as essential for girls’ empowerment and well-being, and we work with partners to tackle this rights violation wherever it occurs. We do so by focusing on those girls who are most at-risk, promoting their education and mobilizing those who influence families and wider society to give girls more control over their own lives and prospects. 

We address child marriage through programming across sectors to tackle the many aspects of this harmful practice, particularly in marginalized communities.

In countries as diverse as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey, we have taken different steps to prevent child marriage, including support for hotlines and referrals to services that offer direct support to girls.

Our programmes draw on robust evidence, informed by the views of marginalized girls and boys, to empower communities and strengthen the systems that act as a safeguard against child marriage, such as education and social protection. 

Ending child marriage means tackling many challenges.

We recognize that ending child marriage involves tackling the many challenges that perpetuate this rights violation, such as gender inequality and discrimination, lack of education, and poverty. 

Our work covers five key areas: 

  • support for development and participation of adolescent girls
  • strengthening legal systems to protect the rights of adolescent girls and boys
  • carrying out cutting-edge research to build a robust evidence base for advocacy, policies, programmes and tracking progress
  • strengthening services to help adolescents at risk of, or affected by, child marriage, particularly girls, and
  • raising awareness of the need to invest in and support girls, and shifting the social expectations that stifle their prospects.

In southeast Turkey, for example, UNICEF is working with the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality to identify causes and cases of child marriages and develop mechanisms to prevent them. The programme aims to reach around 50,000 children and 50,000 parents by the end of 2017. 

In Bulgaria, family centres have drawn on UNICEF-supported research on the causes of child marriage to create programmes to prevent such marriages and promote greater access to secondary schools for girls from Roma communities.   

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the ‘Empowering Roma children and families to exercise their rights’ programme implemented by a Roma organization with support from UNICEF mobilizes Roma communities, institutions and groups to advance the rights of children, with a particular focus on ending child marriages.