Child marriage is the official or unofficial union that involves a child under the age of 18. While child marriage is a reality for both boys and girls, girls are disproportionately affected by the practice. It is estimated that over 700 million women alive today were married as children, and in the developing world, 1 in 3 girls (or 250 million) are believed to have been married before the age of 15 . Nearly 39,000 girls become child brides every day .
Child marriage is a socioeconomic problem, at both the individual and national levels. In many respects, child marriage is a death sentence for young brides; not only can it kill their dreams and aspirations of the future, but it can also, quite literally, kill them.
Though laws have been enacted across the globe to eradicate child marriage, the practice continues.
There are multiple interrelated factors which influence the ongoing practice of child marriage. Perhaps the most prevalent is that of economic burden. Parents will often give their young daughters away in marriage for dowries, bride prices, or simply because it would mean they have one less mouth to feed. Even in situations where parents must pay the groom a dowry, a younger, less educated bride will cost the family less money, whereas an older, educated bride would require a higher price . Since child marriages occur more often in families with lower incomes , it is not surprising that parents who view girls as less valuable than boys are eager to get rid of their “burdens” and make a profit in the process.
Additionally, tradition is a strong factor in child marriage. Deeply rooted cultural ideas concerning gender roles perpetuate a double standard which allows for men to be promiscuous before and during marriage, but mandates that girls and women be virtuous and chaste. Thus, many parents marry off their young children in an effort to protect them from sexual assault , as victims of such crimes are often considered impure and therefore unmarriageable. However, this has potential ties back to economic burden, as daughters who are considered impure and are not able to be married off may continue to be viewed as burdens by their families.
The effects of child marriage are severe. Child brides are not likely to have access to educational or economic opportunities , destined to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers despite their personal wishes.
These duties pose a serious threat to a child brides’ psychological, emotional, and physical development . Young girls, often married to older men, are “are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence” . Pregnancy is one of the leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 , and “their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life” . The future of a child bride is, to say the least, bleak.
In addition to the effects of child marriage on individuals, there is also a significant impact on countries. “The poorest of the countries have the highest rates of child marriage” , which is not a coincidence. Child brides are rarely able to access formal education, and thus are unable to educate their own children. This is true especially when a child bride bears daughters, who are likely to be sold themselves as child brides. Thus the cycle of poverty and lack of economic and educational attainment continues, which negatively impacts the economic development of a country.
A child bride and her husband in Yemen, ABC News.
If nothing is done to stop child marriage, “by the end of the decade an estimated 142 million girls will be married as children” . Millions of futures will be forcibly taken away from innocent girls, and countries (not to mention the child brides themselves) will unwittingly suffer for it.
While it will be difficult to rid the world of the practice of child marriage, it is possible. If we can change cultural values in recognizing the worth of girls and the value of educating them and allowing them to make their own life decisions, individuals, communities, and nations will prosper.