What Will It Take to End Child Marriage?

By Joanne Lu

Two girls pose for a photo outside their school in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Two girls pose for a photo outside their school in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Photo by Taylor Jashinsky for World Concern.

Imagine being a 9-year-old girl, with dreams of becoming a teacher one day. You love school and learning and spending time with your friends. But at home, your father is talking about finding you a husband – not when you’re in your twenties, educated and working. No, now.

Child marriage is a violation of international human rights law. Yet around the world, about 650 million of the women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). By 2030, it’s estimated that more than 150 million girls will become child brides. The problem affects young boys as well, but to a much lesser degree than girls. In 2015, UNICEF estimated that about 18 percent of children married before age 18 are boys, while the rest are girls.

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No doubt there has been progress. Concerted efforts to eliminate the practice have successfully averted about 25 million child marriages over the last decade: Whereas one in four women and girls were married as children 10 years ago, that ratio has dropped to one in five. But UNICEF warns that progress is not nearly fast enough to eliminate the practice by 2030, as laid out in UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. In fact, the agency says that the rate of progress needs to be 12 times faster than in the past decade to meet the target, and right now, not a single region in the world is on track to do so.

While South Asia has improved the most, UNICEF reports that girls in Latin America and the Caribbean are still just as likely to become child brides as their mothers were. Meanwhile, early and forced marriage is actually expected to increase in Sub-Saharan Africa, because the population is growing rapidly, but progress in eliminating the practice has been slowest in the world. Currently, 38 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa become child brides.

But it’s not just a practice in the developing world. In the U.S., child marriage under certain circumstances, like parental or judicial consent, was legal in every state until last year, when New Jersey and Delaware completely banned marriage under age 18.

Why does forcing children into early marriages occurs on such a large scale around the world? According to Girls Not Brides, the reasons vary from community to community, but some of the main drivers of the practice are gender inequality, tradition, poverty and insecurity. In many contexts where the practice is common, girls are seen as economic burdens on their family. Marriage, therefore, is a way to pass that burden onto another man. In cultures where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often pay less when the bride is young and uneducated. Plan International also notes that certain cultures consider younger wives to be more obedient, while some families think marriage will protect their girls from sexual violence.

But that is not true, according to Plan, as girls married early are “more likely to experience  violence, abuse and forced sexual relations.” They also face a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, because usually they are less educated about safe sex, have less say about how to practice sex and are subjected to unprotected sex with husbands who often have prior sexual partners. But perhaps the most dangerous consequence of early marriage is early pregnancy. According to Girls Not Brides, the biggest killer of girls aged 15 to 19 globally is complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Perhaps that’s why SDG 5 identifies child marriage as a harmful practice on par with female genital mutilation.

In addition to serious health consequence, child marriage also forces children to drop out of school, take on adult responsibilities, spend their time on unpaid household work and give up their dreams. This in turn often keeps them trapped in a cycle of poverty.

But the problems aren’t strictly confined to child marriage. UNICEF points out that cohabitation – when a girl isn’t legally married to a man but is his caregiver and lives “in union” with him as if they’re married – can often be more problematic. The lack of legal status as a wife can undermine a girl’s rights to inheritance, citizenship and social recognition.

All these risks contribute to girls being among the world’s most vulnerable populations, who must be protected by laws. But as Plan International points out, it’s not enough for legislators to set the legal age of marriage to 18. The laws must also be enforced and awareness of them spread. Youth activists in some communities are using mediums like radio, music and theater to teach about children’s rights.

But many of the leading interventions to protect children from early and forced marriage center around education. UNICEF reports that in many countries, every year of secondary education reduces the likelihood that a child gets married before age 18 by five percentage points or more. Staying in school allows girls to not only increase their earning potential, but it often also provides more safety and security, better health and more agency to make their own life decisions. Unfortunately, in many of the communities where child marriage is prevalent, sending a child to school – particularly a girl – is not an expense that many families prioritize. Often, it’s more economical to just marry off their daughter.

That’s why World Concern offers scholarships to girls who are at risk of child marriage, effectively taking the financial decision off the table for families. CARE also includes empowerment activities in their girls’ education programs to help girls build confidence and leadership skills. And in many rural communities, girls have no educated and working role models, so CARE builds houses for female teachers to live in these communities that otherwise have no female teachers.

Some organizations also focus on increasing girls’ (and boys’) access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services. These services included sexual education and family planning, which teach girls’ and their communities about children’s rights and puts them in a better position to decide if and when to have children.

But some advocates say that in order to fully eradicate the practice, the conversation around child marriage has to change.

“I find the term ‘child marriage’ an oxymoron, because you cannot have ‘child’ and ‘marriage’ in the same phrase,” Jemimah Njuki, a senior program officer at Canada’s International Development Research Centre, said in a recent interview with BRIGHT Magazine. “We’re talking about the sexual abuse of children.”

Njuki says that sanitizing the practice by “couch[ing it] within the respectable institution of marriage” is undermining efforts to eliminate it.

“If we change the conversation to one of child sex abuse, then we focus on the man who is doing it, as well as the cultural beliefs that condone it,” she says.

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The following Global Washington members are working to end early marriage through their work.


More than one in four girls in India is married before the legal age of 18 years, thereby subjecting them to a lifetime of ill health, neglect and violence. Breakthrough today reaches over 400,000 adolescents across five states in India to help change this bleak situation. The organization does this by building the agency of girls to believe in themselves and to demand their rights to health and education. Breakthrough also works with girls’ families and communities to ensure they value girls and have faith in their potential, so that girls can thrive. While this is a slow process, results are already visible – for example, in its program areas in Jharkhand, Breakthrough has been able to increase the age at which girls are married by 1.7 years. Learn more at https://inbreakthrough.org/focus-area/early-marriage/


Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package®, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization working in 93 countries to fight global poverty. Women and girls are at the heart of CARE’s community-based efforts to improve education and health, create economic opportunity, respond to emergencies and confront hunger. Through CARE programs such as A Future She Deserves, CARE is working to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriages with a goal of reaching over 1 million girls and their families. CARE places a special focus on addressing child marriage in crisis zones, where girls are especially vulnerable. Girls in these contexts, such as those from Syrian refugee families, are often married off for income, legal status or perceived protection. CARE works together with community leaders and partners to change social norms so that vulnerable girls and young women can achieve their aspirations.


Under the umbrella of its Center for Women’s Land Rights, Landesa’s Girls Project in West Bengal, India, aimed to improve the social and economic status of girls, and thereby reduce their many vulnerabilities in the short and long-term, including early marriage. Around the world, land is a source of wealth, status, and opportunity. But rights to land are not equitably distributed to all. By increasing girls’ and communities’ understanding of girls’ land-related rights and helping girls to use land to create assets, girls can demonstrate their value, gain some control over their futures, and are better equipped with the skills and understanding necessary to exercise their land rights as adults.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps works to empower and educate girls and delay early marriage through initiatives like girl groups and accelerated educational opportunities. In Niger, which has the highest child marriage rate in the world (3 in 4 girls marry before their 18th birthday), Mercy Corps has established safe spaces in 20 rural communities for over 3,000 out-of-school adolescent girls. Here girls can discuss topics like family planning, health and nutrition, and education. As a result, 93% of girls enrolled could name at least one benefit to delaying early pregnancy. Also in Niger, Mercy Corps implemented a two-year accelerated program that helps girls finish primary school and re-enter and complete high school. After the first two years, 90% of students graduated and 95% of community members and parents reported that it was important for girls to postpone marriage so they could finish their education.

Oxfam America

Oxfam America is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice. As one of 19 members of the international Oxfam confederation, Oxfam America works with people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions. Oxfam believes that young people, especially girls, have the right to decide freely if and when to marry as well as to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, in a supportive environment. Through its “Creating Spaces” programme to take action on violence against women and girls, and its work with partners through the “More Than Brides Alliance,” Oxfam works to reduce child marriage and its adverse effects on young women and girls in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Malawi, Niger, and Mali.  Learn more at https://www.oxfam.ca/project/creating-spaces and https://morethanbrides.org. 

Sahar Education

Sahar creates opportunities in Afghanistan that empower and inspire children and their families to build peaceful, thriving communities. It achieves this by building schools and designing educational programs that address key barriers that keep girls from accessing and completing their education. In Northern Afghanistan, for example, an estimated 57% of girls are married before the legal age of 16. While early education is encouraged, girls are often forced into early marriage around age 12 or 13, and drop out of school. Sahar’s Early Marriage Prevention Program inspires girls to continue their education and empowers them to become leaders in their community. It also equips them to advocate for themselves by increasing their knowledge of potential educational opportunities and an understanding of their legal rights. Each year, Sahar reaches 500 girls directly, and more than 2,000 community members.

Seattle International Foundation’s Central America & Mexico Youth Fund (The CAMY Fund)

The CAMY Fund works to address and prevent child marriage and early unions in Latin America and the Caribbean through a multipronged approach that includes advocacy, convening, grant making, and research. The CAMY Fund is a leading actor on the issue in the region, and tirelessly promotes keeping girls and young women at the center of the discussions that affect them directly, and consciousness of the cultural, social and political context that makes the practice of child marriage manifest in this diverse region with large impoverished, rural and indigenous communities. The CAMY Fund is a program of the Seattle International Foundation, and its child marriage initiative receives funding support from the Ford Foundation, Novo Foundation and Summit Foundation. Read more here: http://unionestempranas.org/en/lac-initiative/


750 million girls and women today were married before their 18th birthday. This practice is a fundamental violation of human rights and causes girls to lose valuable economic, educational, and social opportunities. If current trends continue, the number of girls and women married as children will reach nearly one billion before 2030. UNICEF works with governments to sustainably address the root causes of child marriage by strengthening systems and working to end harmful behavioral practices. In 2015, the global community made a strong commitment to ending this problem by endorsing UN SDG 5.3, which aims to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation.” This target has the power to influence a number of other goals on the agenda, including those around clean water, poverty, nutrition, health, education, economic grown and the reduction of inequality.

World Concern

World Concern is a Christian global relief and development organization that partners with isolated and impoverished communities beyond the end of the road to give them access to clean water, sustainable food options, healthcare, education, and other necessities of life. By first listening to leaders within a community, World Concern helps it determine primary needs and goals, empowering families to own the work, which brings transformation that lasts. One of the vital aspects of World Concern’s work is the effort to change cultural norms regarding child marriage. By providing scholarships for girls to attend school and building awareness of the dangers of child marriage in communities, World Concern is helping young women gain a brighter future. This breaks the cycle of poverty within a family and benefits the entire community. World Concern operates transformational community development programs in Haiti, Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Uganda, DRC, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Yemen, and Syria.

World Justice Project

The World Justice Project is an independent, multidisciplinary organization working to advance the rule of law around the world. Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small. It is the foundation for communities of justice, opportunity, and peace—underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights. In recent years, significant strides have been made in advancing legislation to prevent child marriage. Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, and El Salvador have all amended a number of marriage acts and loopholes that had outlawed underage marriage. Malawi—a country that consistently ranks among the world’s top twenty nations with the highest prevalence of child marriage—removed a provision that permitted child marriage if the parents consented.