“They’ve already asked me to have children. I live in their house—I have to keep them happy. My husband has also asked me to have children. I said I wanted to wait for two years, but they said, ‘No, you should have children now.’ So I guess I will have to have children now.”
-Azima, 14 years, Bangladesh
Delaying marriage and childbirth is good for development...
but marriage has been the foundation of family formation almost everywhere in the world. It is only in recent decades that the dominance of early marriage is shifting and as a result there is mounting pressure on social norms that sanction marriage as the only path to economic security for girls. In the countries where marriage is a direct threat to women’s health, education, and labor market opportunities, especially in the countries where early marriage (<18 years) is common, delaying marriage and childbirth can accelerate development. In higher income countries the rising age of first marriage and later childbirth has already contributed to women’s increased education and labor market performance. Delaying marriage and childbirth and providing girls with opportunities to secure their economic futures through education and employment can be a powerful force for progress everywhere.
According to the UN, a smaller proportion of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) is married than at any other time in recorded history - 64% compared to 69% in 1970 - with the rate forecast to fall to 60% by 2030. Although the prevalence of marriage has declined and the age of first marriage has risen in most developed and developing countries, in several Asian countries including China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Viet Nam the proportion of women who are married has actually risen in recent decades. Where Asia is home to the vast majority of the world’s 720 million child brides, sub-Saharan African countries have the highest rates of child marriage and also struggle with very low secondary school attendance for girls and high rates of adolescent births, maternal and newborn deaths, and intimate partner violence.
To reap the significant benefits of delaying marriage and childbirth, countries should set new development goals of increasing the ages of first marriage and childbirth among women to 25 by 2020 and to 30 among men and women by 2030. Strategies to achieve these goals should include incentives to keep girls at school, female-friendly jobs growth, increased access to modern contraception, and enactment of legislation outlawing child marriage and its associated harmful practices (e.g. female genital cutting, dowry etc). Over the long term, countries should encourage the formation of new family structures that protect and maximize the wellbeing of all family members and provide girls with options for family formation that do not come at the price of their education, economic independence and wellbeing, or the health and survival of their children.
The United Nations and its agencies should expand the current focus on ending child marriage and initiate a new movement to delay the age of family formation, with a special focus on the countries where women and girls are paying a high price for forced or coerced early marriage and childbirth. Under the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN should encourage a global conversation about the creation of new family structures that offer all members equal opportunities to reach their full potentials and to develop and exercise their full capabilities.
End Child Marriage
14 million girls under 18 are married each year, more than half from India, Bangladesh and Nigeria. #JustActions
In the countries where marriage is a threat to women and girl’s health, education, and labor market opportunities, and a trigger for early childbirth, declining rates of marriage will further accelerate development. Nowhere is this more important than in the countries where child marriage is widely practiced, where girls’ secondary school completion rates are low, and where adolescent births and deaths in pregnancy and childbirth are high.