Addressing the Global Challenge of Child Marriage

Each year, 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married. That’s more than 41,000 girls each day. 28 girls each minute. One girl every 2 seconds.

This summer, the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) held a panel discussion to present their research on the Economic Impacts of Child Marriage.

Spanning cultures, countries, and religions, child marriage has affected hundreds of millions of girls worldwide. Faced with few options, and not enough resources to provide for all of their children, parents sometimes believe that the best option for their families is for their girls to marry young.

This is rarely the best option for the girls themselves, however. When girls marry young, they often cannot finish school. Dropping out of school limits girls’ potential to participate in society and contribute economically. Additionally, early marriage leads to early childbearing, which leads to higher rates of stunted growth for children under five, as well as higher rates of under-five mortality.

In the past five years, world leaders have acknowledged that ending child marriage is a necessary step for increasing global development. Gender equality is one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve gender equality, one of the UN’s tasks is to “eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early, and forced marriage.” With elevated global focus, even countries with the highest rates of child marriage are beginning to change.

Niger, in West Africa, has the highest rates of child marriage in the world — 28% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and 76% of girls are married by the time they are 18. Although the legal age to marry in Niger is 15, there are a number of government proposals and programs working to raise the legal age. In 2014, Niger took part in the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage, and in August 2016, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Child Protection started a national committee tasked with ending child marriage.

Even with strides in the right direction, however, these programs still lack proper funding and full government focus. Highlighting the gap between stated goals and actual outcomes, the World Bank and ICRW study aims to incentivize countries and communities to look at child marriage as an economic issue.

The study finds that ending child marriage will have extremely far reaching economic impacts. Ending child marriage could lead to a welfare benefit estimated at $566 billion annually in 2030 across the 18 countries examined. Economic impacts include benefits from increased education and earning potential, and reduced under-five mortality and stunting for children born to young mothers. Each year that a girl remains in secondary school, the likelihood that she will marry before the age of 18 goes down 6%.

Girls who marry at age 13 have 26% more children than if they were to marry at age 18. Girls who marry at age 17 have 17% more children than girls who marry at age 18. Country-wide, ending child marriage would reduce the fertility rate by 11%.

Roukaya Hamani lives in Niger. She was married when she was 10 years old and her husband was 20. Now 18, Hamani never went to school and already has three children: The oldest is seven years old and the youngest is 16 months. Her husband wants more children, but she says, “Being a mother is not easy work.” Ending child marriage would help girls like Hamani to stay in school, delay child bearing, and have families on their own terms.

Lakshmi Sundaram, Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, said, “This research is huge. It is really important for our members because it gives them a tool to start a conversation with finance ministers and to push for national strategies that address child marriage.”

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