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. Delaying marriage can also reduce death and disability from the potentially harmful practices associated with it, including female-genital cutting, dowry, honor killings, intimate partner violence, polygyny and patrilocality, whereby a bride relocates to live with her husband’s extended family. Delaying first marriage and childbirth, and providing alternative pathways for girls to achieve economic security, can be an even more powerful force for progress in the countries struggling with high and persistent rates of child marriage.
An estimated 60 million, or one in five, women aged 20 to 24 was married by 18 years, including 14 million who were married before they turned 15, according to UNICEF. Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are host to the vast majority of these child brides – 33 and 18 million respectively. Three countries – India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria – account for 40% of the 60 million child brides. India alone has 15.4 million women aged 20 to 24 who were married by 18, Bangladesh has 4.5 million and Nigeria 3.7 million. Tragically, each year an estimated 12 million girls under 18 will be married, the vast majority from India (5 million), Bangladesh (1 million), and Nigeria (500,000), although Brazil (400,000), Ethiopia (300,000), Pakistan (300,000), Indonesia (200,000),the Democratic Republic of Congo (140,000), Mexico (140,000) and Niger (140,000) also contribute significantly, according to UNICEF.
Sub-Saharan Africa is host to many of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage. For example, 15 of the 17 countries where more than 4 out of every 10 girls marry before turning 18 are in Africa. More than 15% of women aged 20 to 24 across Chad (30%), the Central African Republic (29%), Niger (28%), Guinea (19%), Nigeria (18%), and Mali (17%) marry before they turn 15. Among non-African countries, only Bangladesh (22%) has such a high rate of very early child marriage.
Not surprisingly, most of the countries with high numbers and high rates of child marriage also struggle with very low secondary school attendance for girls, as well as high rates of adolescent births, maternal and newborn deaths, and intimate partner violence. Most of the endemic child marriage countries in sub-Saharan Africa also struggle with high rates of female genital cutting – often considered a prerequisite for marriage – and polygyny, while dowry and patrilocality plague countries in Asia. All of these practices cause significant pain and suffering, and even death, for young girls. It is in these Asian and African countries that delaying family formation can contribute significantly to the achievement of national health, education, and labor market goals.
During the past decade, the proportion of young women who were married as children fell from 1 in 4 (25%) to 1 in 5 (21%), according to UNICEF
. Much of this progress was in India as there has been very little change in the child marriage rates in most Sub-Saharan African countries over the period. To meet the target of elimination by 2030, global progress would need to be 12 times faster than the rate observed over the past decade, according to UNICEF.