Every year, approximately 15 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. Referred to as early, forced or child marriage — a marriage or union in which one partner is under the age of 18 —it disproportionately impacts girls. Child marriage occurs throughout the world, in both high and low income countries, and is not tied to any one region, religion or culture. The practice has affected 700 million women alive today. Wherever it occurs, marriage abruptly ends a girls’ childhood and immediately puts her health and future prospects in danger.
The practice of child marriage is a violation of girls’ human rights. In addition to putting a girl’s health at risk, it hinders her ability to exercise her right to choose who, if, and when she marries; to pursue her right to education; and in many cases, may also impede her legal and economic rights. Child marriage ultimately violates a girl’s aspirations and achievements.
The reasons behind child marriage are complex, but some root causes include inequitable gender norms, poverty and the belief that marriage will protect girls from sexual assault or harassment. Current research shows that child marriage limits girls’ education, leads to early and more frequent childbirth and puts girls at a heightened risk of experiencing violence, food insecurity and other negative health outcomes, such as pregnancy complications or sexually transmitted diseases. Women who were married as girls also have fewer economic opportunities and experience greater degrees of social isolation.
Furthermore, early marriage will have a negative impact on the next generation. Research has shown that children of women who married early will have a lower likelihood of surviving infancy and early childhood, and their own prospects at economic prosperity, educational achievement and health are significantly reduced. As a result, child marriage has a profound impact on girls, their families, communities and countries worldwide.
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ICRW was one of the first organizations to conduct research and engage in advocacy around child marriage. This research has not only explored the impacts of child marriage, but also the root causes of and best practices to prevent child marriage. ICRW has also explored how best to support girls who are already married. Our research has been designed to better understand the scope, causes and consequences of child marriage in order to find effective solutions to prevent the practice in a number of different cultural contexts around the world.
Collaborating with local partners, we have designed effective programs that work with girls and boys, their families and their communities to delay marriage. We have evaluated projects and programs to determine how and why they work. We use our research to educate national and international policymakers on the urgent need for leadership and action to prevent child marriage. The United Nations and policymakers in the United States have relied on ICRW research to inform the creation and improvement of policies and practices, as well as to build more successful interventions to prevent the practice and include girls who are already married in programming across various sectors.