Child, early and forced marriage: what it means for girls globally and the role Canada can play to end it

Article Date

15 May 2015

Article Author

Sarah Degnan Kambou

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The following are remarks made by ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou, in front of a Hearing of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the Parliament of Canada. 

Honorable members of Parliament, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today as you consider the important topic of child, early and forced marriage, and the role Canada can play to end this harmful practice.

I serve as President of the International Center for Research on Women, a global research institute that provides research evidence to inform programs and policies to alleviate poverty, promote gender equality and empower women and girls. One of the most persistent challenges we face in achieving our mission is the practice of child marriage, a practice we have been working to end for nearly two decades.

It is a privilege to be here with you today to discuss what we have learned through our research.

Child, early and forced marriage includes any legal or customary union involving a boy or girl below the age of 18, or any marriage without the free and full consent of both spouses. Today I will focus on “child marriage,” which is, by definition, forced marriage (as, per the Convention on the Rights of the Child, anyone below the age of 18 cannot give their free and full consent).

Child marriage is first and foremost a violation of human rights. The free and full consent to marry is closely connected to the right to life, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to education, the right to bodily integrity, the right to freedom from violence and exploitation. When a girl is forced to marry, she may face serious health complications – even death – from early pregnancy and early and repeated childbearing. She is often at higher risk of HIV infection and intimate partner violence. And she is often isolated, taken away from her family, her school and her peers, and given little to no opportunity to participate in community life.

Child marriage is not an isolated phenomenon. Despite the fact that 18 is the minimum legal age of marriage in some 158 countries, girls under the age of 18 – and even under 15 in many countries – can marry due to state or customary law or with the consent of parents or authorities.

Indeed, child marriage is a worldwide problem that crosses cultures, religions and geographies. One in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18. One in nine is married before 15.  Each year, some 15 million girls are married–that’s 39,000 girls each day, or one every two seconds.

Why is child marriage so widespread and so persistent?

While different traditions and socio-economic circumstances perpetuate the practice in different contexts, child marriage tends to be more prevalent in poor and rural communities and households, and in countries and communities where women and girls have limited educational and economic opportunities.

A poor family may be more compelled to marry their daughter early, whether to gain bride price from the groom’s family, to minimize the cost of the dowry, or simply to reduce the financial burden of an additional member of the household.

In many societies, women’s primary role is seen as reproductive – a girl’s value is measured by the children she will have and the domestic labor she will provide to a future husband and in-laws — so families have less incentive to invest in her education, particularly when resources are scarce.

Finally, laws and policies that govern birth registration, marriage registration, property rights, education and health may be key variables in regard to child marriage.


Never before has there been so much attention and political will to act on this critically important issue. Here is how we begin.

Our research has identified five strategies that have been used successfully to delay girls’ marriage in different contexts:

  • First and foremost, we must empower girls with information, skills and support networks so they can gain the skills and confidence to be able to make on act on decisions, and so that they have peers who can support them.
  • Second, we can educate and engage parents and community members. In many societies, it is families and community leaders who decide when and whom a girl marries. Educating these stakeholders about how child marriage affects a girl’s health and future, and engaging them in creating change, can lead to powerful and positive outcomes.
  • Third, we must ensure girls’ access to high-quality education. Girls with no education are three times as likely to marry as those with secondary or higher education. When girls are in school, they are less likely to be seen as ready for marriage and can develop supportive social networks and the skills to advocate for their needs. Incentives, such as free uniforms and scholarships, programs that improve the safety and girl-friendliness of schools, and curricula that are relevant to girls’ lives, can help girls enroll and stay in school.
  • A fourth strategy is economic support.  Providing a girl or her family with a loan, cash transfer or an opportunity to learn an income-generating skill can yield immediate relief for struggling households, and can help girls be seen as bringing value to the family.
  • Finally, ensuring that child marriage prevention laws and policies are instituted and, importantly, implemented, is a critical first step in ending the practice.

Recommendations for Canada

We thank Canada for its leadership in calling for action at a global level to end child marriage. Canada’s engagement helped ensure the passage of the UN General Assembly’s first ever resolution on child marriage, and will hopefully lead to the inclusion of child marriage prevention in the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals this fall.

We encourage you to continue to stand strong for girls’ rights at the international level. But investments in community-level solutions are also critical, and I know Canada is investing in this issue through UNICEF as well as in your bilateral development assistance.

To make a meaningful impact, we must work to protect girls’ rights and empower them to make their own decisions about if, when and whom to marry, as well as if, when and with whom to have sex and bear children.

Progress for women and girls – measured by an end to child marriage and other forms of violence, by the improved sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women, by increased educational and employment opportunities, and by the active participation and leadership of women in public life – should be our metrics of success.

We have abundant evidence that harmful practices, even those enshrined in culture, can and do change. I look forward to Canada’s continued global engagement in ensuring that more than 150 million girls will not become child brides over the next decade, but will instead fulfill their potential as healthy and empowered citizens of the world.