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.