Child marriage threatens the lives, well-being and futures of girls around the world.
Child marriage refers to any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child.
While the prevalence of child marriage has decreased worldwide – from one in four girls married a decade ago to approximately one in five today – the practice remains widespread. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million girls were expected to marry before their eighteenth birthday in the next decade. Now, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for global action to end this human rights violation by 2030.
Child marriage is often the result of entrenched gender inequality, making girls disproportionately affected by the practice. Globally, the prevalence of child marriage among boys is just one sixth that among girls.
Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and threatens their lives and health. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services.
Child brides often become pregnant during adolescence, when the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth increases – for themselves and their infants. The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being.
Because child marriage impacts a girl’s health, future and family, it imposes substantial economic costs at the national level, too, with major implications for development and prosperity.
Addressing child marriage requires recognition of the factors that enable it. While the roots of the practice vary across countries and cultures, poverty, lack of educational opportunities and limited access to health care perpetuate it. Some families marry off their daughters to reduce their economic burden or earn income. Others may do so because they believe it will secure their daughters’ futures or protect them.
Norms and stereotypes around gender roles and marriage age, as well as the socio-economic risk of pregnancy outside of marriage, also uphold the practice.
“If a girl of my age gets married, it’s not good. I have a different perspective from many. Going to school doesn’t spoil a girl – quite the contrary.”
Because UNICEF works with a range of stakeholders – from grassroots organizations to high-level decision makers – across a scope of rights issues, we are uniquely positioned to identify and address the systemic barriers to reproductive health and gender equality.
In 2016, UNICEF, together with UNFPA, launched the Global Programme to End Child Marriage. Empowering young girls at risk of marriage or already in union, the programme have reached more than 12 million adolescent girls with life-skills training and school attendance support since 2016. Over 105 million people, including key community influencers, have also engaged in dialogue and communication campaigns to support adolescent girls, or other efforts to end child marriage.
Last updated June 2021
More from UNICEF
This compendium consists of findings and recommendations to strengthen the evidence base and impact of social and behaviour change interventions to end child marriage, looking at four different studies from different countries and regions.
This learning brief synthesizes evidence to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting child marriage risk factors and how UNICEF, within the UNFPA–UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage, is pivoting to identify and respond to risk factors and adapt programming to COVID-19 limitations.
Developed with the African Union, this brief supports efforts to end child marriage across the continent.
This brief notes learnings from implementation of the first phase of the continental campaign to end child marriage.
UNICEF’s global database for data on child marriage.
The global partnership Girls Not Brides keeps resources on child marriage from a variety of organizations and partners.