Sometimes, such unions begin with betrothals of toddlers or babies. In the developing world, millions of girls are married while they are still children, some barely past puberty. Though accurate data is difficult to get, experts estimate that 100 million girls in the developing world will be married before the age of 18. The practice is more common in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and parts of South Asia. Today, 51 million girls under 17 in developing countries are married. Most of these marriages are formed because the community expects them and often they are forced or coerced. While the practice is common in diverse cultures, the cultures are generally poor and those who practice child marriage are generally the poorest of the poor. There are 5 “hotspots” where 25 percent to 50 percent of the girls are married by age 15 (especially poor areas of Nicaragua, Mali, India, Nigeria, and Ethiopia).
The child brides suffer a common experience –– an abrupt end to childhood. Many of the daughters are only nine or 10 when they are married off. They have to drop out of school; in Mali, nine out of 10 married girls cannot read. Further, sexual activity and childbearing are health risks at these young ages.
Sadly, some parents who marry off their young daughters are trying to shed an economic burden. Girls living in poor households (lower 40th percentile) are approximately twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in better off households (upper 20th percentile). In sub-Saharan Africa, the practice is common. In Senegal, a poor girl is more than four times as likely to be a child bride as her richer peers. A study of early marriage in sub-Saharan Africa found that in Kenya and Zambia a child bride is 75 percent more likely to be HIV-positive than sexually active unmarried girls.
Other parents think that they are providing a brighter future for their daughters, but the facts show that girls in poverty who marry young are likely to remain poor. In some countries, dowry and bride wealth determine the age of the bride by giving a financial incentive for marrying girls early. In other instances, families offer their girls to wealthier neighbors to attain higher standing in the community.
In fact, the future of child brides is dim. Girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those in their 20s. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women ages 15-to-19 worldwide. Over 2 million women worldwide suffer from obstetric fistula, a complication of childbirth that is especially common among physically immature girls. The United Nations Population Fund reports that fistula patients are commonly poor women ages 15-to-20, many of whom report early marriage.
The majority of child brides are married to significantly older men. A Tufts University study revealed that child marriages in Afghanistan were common even though the minimum legal age of marriage is 16. Nationwide, 16 percent of girls are married before 15.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear: Marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” That puts a burden of responsibility on nations to ensure that child marriage ends. It can be done. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have stopped the practice of child marriage over the last generation. Other nations should follow their example to end the abuse of little girls known as “child marriage.”