In developing countries, one in three girls is married before the age of 18, and one in nine marries under 15. Recent reports from countries with high rates of child marriage indicate the situation is not changing for the better.
It is estimated that 14.2 million girls under 18 are married every year, or nearly 40,000 girls a day. The United Nations Population Fund estimates those numbers will increase in coming years, unless more direct action is taken.
The girls most at risk of marrying young tend to be rural, without education and extremely poor. They are usually denied further schooling and are kept from gaining the skills needed to be empowered participants in their society, country and culture.
Even when adolescent girls are considered more than just sexual and domestic servants, marrying too early ties them and their families to a cycle of poverty and inequality. Their marriages, at ages as young as seven and eight, help continue the vicious cycle of poverty and poor education in the next generation.
Children born to young girls who have not fully matured physically or psychologically tend to have a high mortality rate. Adolescent pregnancies also risk the lives of mothers. Pregnancy and childbirth have become one of the leading causes of death among female adolescents in developing countries.
Stopping the practice is not easy because it is so deeply entrenched in many cultures, regardless of laws forbidding such marriages. In most countries, though not all, legislation sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18.
But enforcing those laws is difficult in the face of strong social customs and practicalities. Those customs persist not just because of the force of tradition, but also because marriage at a young age is considered a way to security for girls and less of an economic burden for a family.
Reducing poverty is, therefore, the best long-range solution, but in the meantime, the millions of children who are married deserve support. The need for girls to continue education and participate in social programs, both before and after marriage, is important. Girls and women of all ages need to gain the right skills to break the cycle of poverty and learn how to make decisions that will improve their own situation and that of their children. However, in many places around the world, schoolgirls are coming under threat of attack.
Ending child marriage is one of the ways to achieve greater equality for women around the world. A married girl is unlikely to become educated or to gain autonomy in adulthood. Girls should have the right to a childhood, which is the first step toward achieving their full human rights as adults.