5 Surprising Reasons Why Child Marriage Happens

It’s happening right now.

As you read this, another girl under 18 is becoming a child bride somewhere in the world.

In fact, 12 million girls become child brides every year – a grim reality that robs girls of their rights, often forcing them to drop out of school, exposing them to violence (sexual, physical and emotional) and thrusting them into experiences that their young minds and bodies are not ready for, like motherhood.

Child, early and forced marriage is a complex global issue, one that disproportionately affects girls – 82% of all children married before age 18 are girls. Extreme poverty, cultural traditions and a lack of education and economic opportunities are the predominant drivers of child marriage – but at the heart of this issue is gender inequality and the belief that girls are not as ”valuable”.

In addition, there are other contributing factors – some that might shock and surprise you.

1. Legal loopholes and parental consent

Bride with two hands on her head

16-year-old Punam on her wedding day. (Photo: Lieve Blancquaert)

Among the 190 UN member states that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 12 per cent have no legal minimum age for marriage that protects girls under 18.

Furthermore, many countries where 18 is the minimum age for marriage have legal loopholes which include different minimum ages for girls and boys and allow for children to marry with parental consent.

Giving parents this decision-making power is problematic as it takes away a girls’ right and agency to decide whether, when and who to marry. Often the girls involved have no say in the matter because of unequal gender power relationships in households.

Recently, Plan International helped close parental consent loopholes in marriage laws in Malawi, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, but there are still many other countries where a girl’s parents have the final say.

2. Lack of birth registration

Globally, 230 million children under the age of 5 have never had their births registered, and more than 100 developing countries do not have efficient public birth registration systems – this means millions of children are living without a birth certificate.

What does birth registration have to do with child marriage? A birth certificate not only provides information on a child’s identity and place of birth, but also acts as a shield from child marriage and other exploitative violations such as trafficking and child labour.

In other words: If a girl cannot prove her age or identity, then who is to say her marriage is against the law?

3. Climate Change

Climate change is affecting the world in various ways – temperatures are rising, floods are happening in places previously affected by drought and vice versa. These changes are having devastating effects on families in some of the poorest regions of the world – especially in Africa, where changing weather patterns are reducing crop yields for farmers.

In countries such as Malawi and Mozambique, farming families who could once afford to provide for their children are now struggling with poverty. As a result, they are marrying off their daughters at a younger age.

So why is this happening? In times of uncertainty and financial struggle, daughters are often married off as soon as possible. In finding a husband for a daughter, parents believe they are providing for their child without putting additional stress on their current situation.

In 2015, UNICEF warned that the total number of child brides across Africa could more than double to 310 million by 2050.

4. Menstruation

A girl’s first period can be interpreted as a sign that she is ready for motherhood in many parts of the world. However, girls are neither physically nor emotionally prepared for marriage, pregnancy and childbirth until adulthood. According to WHO, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death for girls under age 15.

Often the beginning of a girl’s period can mark the end of her education because of the fear, shame, embarrassment and stigma that surrounds menstruation in many parts of the world. In addition, many schools lack functioning, sanitary and safe toilets, and girls can often not afford products like tampons or pads.

When girls are not in school, they are more likely to become child brides. According to Girls Not Brides, girls who have no education are three times as likely to marry by 18 compared to girls with secondary or higher education.

However, education is a powerful weapon against child marriage because the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to get married before age 18.

5. Conflict

During times of conflict, war and civil unrest, girls become increasingly vulnerable to child marriage.

Displacement, instability, harsh living conditions, the threat of violence and poverty lead families to marry off their daughters either to protect them from potential violence or to alleviate financial stress. In most cases, parents think they’re doing what’s best for their daughter by agreeing to her marriage.

According to the United Nations, there has been an alarming rise in child marriage rates since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis. In a survey of some 2,400 refugee women and girls, more than a third between 20 and 24 years old had been married before age 18, and among refugee girls aged 15 and 17 years, 24 per cent are married.

Together, we can #endchildmarriage

Ending child marriage won’t be an easy feat, but change is possible if we work together. Through collaboration with youth, parents, community leaders and governments, we can help ensure girls’ rights and empower millions of girls to decide their future for themselves.