15 MARCH 2013 | NEW YORK
Child marriage: The issue
A major roadblock to women’s and children’s health
One in three young women aged 20 to 24 is married before the age of 18 in developing countries. This is a denial of her rights, disrupting access to education and increasing the risk of dying from complications during pregnancy and childbirth–a leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in low and middle-income countries.
Ninety per cent of adolescent mothers in developing countries are married. These young, first-time mothers face much higher risks than older women. Early childbearing is associated with more pregnancies at shorter intervals during a mother’s lifetime. These factors—a young age, multiple children and a short interval between births—are all linked to a higher risk of death and disability related to pregnancy or childbirth. Although adolescents aged 10 to 19 years account for 11% of all births worldwide, they account for 23% of the overall burden of disease (disability- adjusted life years) due to pregnancy and childbirth.
Stillbirths and deaths during the first week of life are 50% among babies born to adolescent mothers than among babies born to mothers in their twenties. Children of adolescent mothers are more likely to be premature and have low birth weight.
If child marriage is not properly addressed, UN Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 — calling for a two-thirds reduction in maternal mortality and a three-quarters reduction in child deaths between 1990 and 2015 — will not be met.
A rising challenge
Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
If current levels of child marriages hold, 14.2 million girls annually or 39,000 daily will marry too young.
Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before they are 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15.
Child marriage is a global issue but rates vary dramatically, both within and between countries. In both proportions and numbers, most child marriages take place in rural sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
What progress has been made to stop the practice has mostly been in urban areas where families see greater work and education opportunities for young girls.
A violation of the rights of girls
Child marriage is increasingly recognized as a violation of the rights of girls, because it hurts girls by:
- Effectively ending their education
- Blocking any opportunity to gain vocational and life skills
- Exposing them to the risks of too-early pregnancy, child bearing, and motherhood before they are physically and psychologically ready
- Increasing their risk of intimate partner sexual violence and HIV infection
Despite the fact that 158 countries have set the legal age for marriage at 18 years, laws are rarely enforced in communities where marrying young children is upheld by tradition and social norms.