Child marriages occur all over the world, regardless of culture, religion, country or custom. The practice destroys childhoods and limits the future of girls–even if the marriage is consensual.
“I was 11 years old when I quit school, that’s when we got married. He left me when I was 4 months pregnant. He said the child wasn’t his.” said 15-year-old Aracely from Guatemala in an interview with the organization Girls Not Brides (1).
1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married before age 18. This means that over 700 million women who are alive today were married as children. If child marriage continues at current rates, by 2050, there will be 1.2 billion child brides in the world (2).
Child marriage has tremendous consequences—for girls and for the entire community. Girls married before age 18 are twice as likely to be beaten by their husbands, and are more likely to contract HIV from their husbands (2, 3). They are also more likely to drop out of school, suffer the subsequent lack of education, and have an increased likelihood of poverty (4). Child brides also often lack social support groups to help them through these hardships since they are often isolated from their families and friends.
Pregnancy becomes incredibly difficult and dangerous for underage brides. Fistulas—a tear in the flesh between the vagina and bladder or rectum that causes feces and urine to leak constantly—are more likely to occur in cases of girls who have not reached physical maturity (5, 6). Women with fistulas are in constant physical pain, and are caused further emotional pain by being ostracized from their communities due to fecal or urine leakage (6).
Adolescent pregnancy transforms the process of giving life to one that kills—and kills effectively. Pregnancy is a leading cause of death for girls ages fifteen to nineteen worldwide (2). The children of child brides are also more likely to die; stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent more likely in mothers under age twenty (5).
One of the best steps of progress to come from 2016 has been the increased legislation against child marriage. Though laws alone cannot stop child marriage, they are a promising start. Gambia passed a law requiring twenty years of imprisonment for husbands and parents of any girl who is married before age eighteen.
Even individuals who are not directly involved but who know of a child marriage and choose not to report it could face ten years in prison under this law (7). This law goes a step beyond holding the family of child brides responsible, but extends the responsibility to the entire community to protect underage girls from marriage.
Cameroon passed a law this July that makes forced marriage punishable by five to ten years imprisonment—and a fine from 25,000 to 1,000,000 CFAF, or about $50 to $2,000. Though this law does not specifically prohibit child marriage, forced child marriages would fall under this law’s purview. Cameroon followed up this law with a law specifically against child marriage, mandating a minimum two-year sentence for those who marry a child under age 18 (8).
The United States also saw a law passed against child marriage in 2016. Though it may be surprising to some that child marriage could be a problem in the United States, a Virginian law previously allowed girls of any age to legally get married, as long as they were pregnant and their parents consented.
This previous law allowed almost 4,500 minors in Virginia to marry between 2004 and 2013. Ninety percent of these cases saw underage girls marrying adult men. Under the new Virginia law passed in July 2016, marriage is absolutely illegal for those under sixteen. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who wish to be married must first apply to become emancipated from their parents. Even then, a judge must evaluate and consider the application (9).
Child marriage is a problem in countries around the world. In first and third world countries alike, thousands of girls are married to adult men. The development of laws criminalizing child marriage and holding parents, husbands, and communities accountable is an important step in allowing girls to grow to maturity.
Children must not be forced into marriages that are not appropriate for the naiveté of youth—psychologically, developmentally, or physically. May 2017 usher in more progress in the fight against underage marriage.
 Girls Not Brides. “The untold stories of Guatemala’s child brides.” N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
 “Child Marriage Facts and Figures – ICRW.” ICRW. International Center for Research on Women, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
 “Girls’ Safety.” Girls Not Brides. Girls Not Brides, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
 “Education.” Girls Not Brides. Girls Not Brides, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
 “Health.” Girls Not Brides. Girls Not Brides, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.
 “Obstetric Fistula.” UNFPA. United Nations Population Fund, 31 May 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.
 Davies, Gareth. “Gambia Bans Child Marriage with 20 Year Jail Terms as Country Tries to Tackle Practice That Sees a Third of Women Married before They Are 18.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 08 July 2016. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
 Bonga, Olive. “New Rules to Help End Child Marriage in Cameroon.” UNFPA. United Nations Population Fund, 06 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.
 Tsui, Anjali. “America’s Child Marriage Crisis: Virginia Law Tackles Continuing Issue.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 July 2016. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.