“She cannot just sit around waiting to turn twenty”

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Understanding why child marriage persists in Kenya and Zambia

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Mara Steinhaus, Amy Gregowski, Natacha Stevanovic Fenn and Suzanne Petroni

Choosing whether, when and who to marry is one of the most important, personal decisions that one can make. Yet, in many places around the world, girls and boys are forced into marriage before they’re ready, a practice known as “child marriage”. Around the world, an estimated 15 million girls are married each year before they turn 18, and UNICEF estimates that 720 million women alive today were married as children. The harmful consequences of child marriage have been well documented.

Child marriage often means the end of a girls’ formal education, limited economic prospects, constrained social engagement, increased health risks and heightened risk of physical, emotional and sexual violence. Considerable research to understand the determinants of child marriage has been conducted in South Asia; however, despite increased attention to the issue in recent years, the evidence base on the experience of child marriage in diverse contexts in sub-Saharan Africa remains limited.

To fill this evidence gap and to provide information that can inform programmatic and policy actions, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), in partnership with Plan International Zambia and Kisumu Medical Education Trust (KMET), conducted intensive qualitative research in Zambia and Kenya.

Our objectives were to:

1) Explore and document the contextual factors that both promote and prevent child marriage; and

2) Understand the process by which adolescent girls get married.

This report documents key findings from our study on the pathways that lead to child marriage in Kenya and Zambia and identifies key recommendations that could dismantle some of the key pathways to child marriage.

Country briefs, detailing the different contexts for each country, can be found here: