Approximately 12 million girls are married each year before they reach the age of 18, according to UNICEF data from 2018. That’s one in five girls globally whose childhood is abruptly ended and future prospects further complicated. Referred to as early or child marriage — a marriage or union in which one partner is under the age of 18 —the practice disproportionately impacts girls. According to USAID, forced marriage is a marriage at any age that occurs without the free and full consent of one or both spouses. This includes child and early marriage, as people under 18 are not able to give full consent.
Child, early and forced marriage occur throughout the world, in both high- and low-income countries. And it is not tied to any one region, religion or culture. The practice has affected 650 million women alive today.
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 girl also have fewer economic opportunities and experience greater degrees of social isolation. The practice is costing the global economy trillions of dollars, according to research conducted by ICRW and the World Bank.
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.
The latest UNICEF data shows that 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade, which is significant progress. ICRW has conducted research on the solutions to child marriage, and we must do more. Continued concerted efforts to address the root causes of child, early and forced marriage is essential to ensure that we achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 and end child marriages by 2030.
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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.