What is child marriage?

Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age.

Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 23 girls every minute. Nearly one every 3 seconds. Child marriage happens across countries, cultures, and religions.

Why does child marriage happen?

At its heart, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men. Child marriage is a complex issue. Poverty, lack of education, cultural practices, and insecurity fuel and sustain the practice. However, drivers will vary from one community to the next, and the practice may look different across regions and countries, even within the same country.

Gender inequality

In many communities that practice child marriage, girls are not valued as much as boys are; they are seen as a burden on their families.

Marrying your daughter at a young age is viewed as a way to ease economic hardship by transferring this ‘burden’ to her husband’s family. 

Child marriage is also driven by patriarchal values and the desire to control female sexuality, for instance, how a girl should behave, how she should dress, whom she should be allowed to see, to marry, etc.

Families closely guard their daughters’ sexuality and virginity in order to protect family honor. Girls who have relationships or become pregnant outside of marriage are shamed for bringing dishonor to their families.

Tradition

Child marriage is a traditional practice that, in many places, happens simply because it has happened for generations. In some communities, when girls start to menstruate, they become women in the eyes of the community. Marriage is, therefore, the next step toward giving a girl her status as a wife and mother.

Harmful traditional practices can be linked to each other. Traditional practices often go unquestioned because they have been part of a community’s life and identity for a long time.

Poverty

More than half of girls from the poorest families in the developing world are married as children. Where poverty is acute, families and sometimes girls themselves believe that marriage will be a solution to secure their future.

Giving a daughter in marriage allows parents to reduce family expenses by ensuring they have one less person to feed, clothe and educate. Families may also see investing in their son’s education as a more worthwhile investment. In some cases, a marriage of a daughter is a way to repay debts, manage disputes, or settle social, economic, and political alliances.

In communities where a dowry or bride price is paid, it is often welcome income for poor families; in those where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less if the bride is young and uneducated.

Insecurity

Many parents marry their daughters young because they feel it is in their best interest, often to ensure their safety in areas where girls are at high risk of harassment and physical or sexual assault.

When families face even greater hardship, they may see child marriage as a coping mechanism in the face of poverty and violence. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest child marriage rates are considered fragile states.

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