Child marriage could increase as youth population grows

by Maria Caspani | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 03:00 GMT

A girl carries an empty bucket over her head to collect water at a lake near Yangon on May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Record numbers of girls at risk of abusive early marriages in poor countries

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the world's youth population grows, especially in developing countries, more girls may be at risk of early marriage now more than ever, according to a British think tank.    

Despite limited progress in some countries, one-third of girls in the developing world marry before the age of 18, and  about a tenth before they turn 15, a report by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) said, adding that many girls are pushed into marriage by parents and are effectively treated as commodities.     

"Many parents, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, think it's better for their daughters to marry young, or are put in a position where they are forced to do so," said Caroline Harper, the head of ODI’s Social Development Programme. "Poverty plays a role, but entrenched discriminatory social and cultural traditions are also behind this crisis.”   

Over the last 40 years, the incidence of early marriage declined from 41.2 percent to 32.7 percent worldwide, gains that experts say are happening too slowly. Currently, the report said, some 39,000 child brides marry every day, or 14 million a year.

Early - or child - marriage, has devastating consequences on girls' health. It increases the chances of dying during childbirth as often the girl's body is not adequately physically developed to endure pregnancy.   

Marrying before adulthood also stifles girls' chances to get secondary education and enter the job market, effectively perpetuating the poverty cycle that often cripples households in the developing world.

Early marriage is illegal in most countries, the report said, but criminalisation often doesn't translate into effective action and may push the phenomenon deeper into a country's social tissue.


Various factors push girls into early marriage, from economic reasons to social norms - which are often deeply intertwined - and they differ greatly from country to country. If a family is struggling financially, marrying off a young daughter often yields money for the household. The younger the daughter, the more money is offered as a bride-price.

In many poor countries, girls are valued primarily for their reproductive capacities and therefore marriage is viewed by society as the logical path for women and girls to take.

Moreover, preserving family honour and the importance of a girl's virginity often push parents to marry their daughters off many years before they're ready, ODI said.

Given the complexity of the issue and the many different factors that play into it, there can't be a single solution to early marriage.

The report suggests country-specific, focused approaches that take into account different socio-economic contexts, as well as broader measures such as keeping girls in school and legally empowering them so that they can own assets, property and have equal rights in terms of divorce and  inheritance, among other things. 

Other highlights from the report include:

  • Rural girls in the developing world are twice as likely as their urban counterparts (44 percent versus 22 percent) to marry as children.
  • Girls with no education are more than three times as likely to marry young as are girls who have completed secondary school.
  • Household income makes a difference. Only 16 percent of girls in the richest households marry as children, compared to 54 percent of those in the poorest.
  • In India, women married as children are twice as likely to report physical violence as women who marry as adults.

 (Editing by Lisa Anderson:

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