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.
Asia is host to the vast majority of the world’s 720 million child brides, including 250 million who were married before they turned 15. UNICEF reports that India, Bangladesh and Nepal account for almost 70% of women who were married before they turned 18. Further, each year an estimated 14 million girls under the age of 18 are 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. Sub-Saharan Africa is host to many of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage. For example, more than 6 out of every 10 girls in Niger, Chad, Mali and the Central African Republic are married before they turn 18.
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, high rates of adolescent births, maternal and newborn deaths, and intimate partner violence. Most of the high child marriage countries in sub-Saharan Africa also struggle with very high rates of female genital cutting, considered a prerequisite for marriage, and polygyny, while dowry and patrilocality plague the high child marriage Asian countries. 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.