Child, early and forced marriage is a global issue that disproportionately affects girls. Current estimates reveal approximately 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year. Imagine – that’s 1 girl married nearly every 3 seconds.
When a girl is married at an early age, her chances to learn, grow and realize her full potential are diminished. Child marriage often ensures that girls remain dependent on others (i.e. her husband or his family) and removes a girl’s decision-making abilities when it comes to having sex, getting pregnant and the overall course of their lives.
In addition, child marriage increases the risk of violence, illness and even death for girls. See 4 of the major health consequences of child marriage.
1. Maternal health
Child marriage encourages sexual activity among girls who are not yet physically or psychologically ready to deal with childbirth. In addition, girls who marry young often live in rural or remote communities with limited access to sexual and reproductive health education, including access to contraceptives.
According to the World Health Organization, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls aged 15-19 globally, and 90% of adolescent pregnancies in the developing world are to girls already married. Also, girls who give birth before the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s.
Child brides are also more vulnerable to other pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula, which can have devastating long-term consequences, especially if left untreated. In fact, 65% of all obstetric fistula cases occur in girls under 18.
2. Infant mortality
Pregnancy at a young age not only has potentially devastating effects for mothers but also for their newborns. According to Girls Not Brides, stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher in mothers younger than 20 years old.
In low- and middle-income countries, babies born to mothers under 20 years of age also face higher risks of low birthweight, preterm delivery, and severe neonatal conditions.
3. Domestic Violence
When it comes to child marriage, parents often believe they are doing what is best for their daughters by marrying them off early, believing that their new husbands will provide safety and economic security. However, girls who marry before the age of 15 are almost 50% more likely to have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner than girls who married after 18.
In addition, child brides are more likely to describe their first sexual experience as forced.
Child marriage can increase the risk of girls becoming infected with HIV for a few reasons.
Firstly, child brides often live in remote regions where access to healthcare and information about sexual health services and rights may be limited. As a result, child brides may not have knowledge of HIV risk factors, prevention, treatment or even their basic human right to say “no” to sex with their husbands.
Furthermore, girls are sometimes married off to older men who will have already had and may continue to have numerous sexual partners, which can also increase risk, especially in regions where the virus in more prevalent.
In Africa, the connection between HIV/AIDS and child marriage is of particular concern, as AIDS is now the leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10-19 on the continent.
More than two-thirds of those infected with HIV – 25.2 million – live south of the Sahara. And, among the 1.16 million new infections in Africa in 2016, more than one in 10 occurred among children aged under 14.
Time is running out for girls at risk of child marriage
In the time it took to read this story, 60 girls were forced into child marriage.
With each passing moment, progress that has been made for girls’ rights to say NO to child marriage is being undone due to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. We are now faced with the reality that more girls will become child brides as a direct result of the pandemic.
We must stop the clock and stop the setback so that girls can decide their own futures.