In recent decades, there has been a decline in the proportion of women who are married in almost all countries. In 2022, just 65% of women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) were married compared to 69% in 1970. According to the United Nations (UN), by 2030 just 63% of women under 50 years will be married.

This means that by the end of decade the world will have an estimated 762,000,000 single women – 37% of all women of working age. As fertility rates fall to historic lows (2.3 children by 2030), these women will represent a powerful force for human development. This shift signals the declining role of marriage as the only path to economic security for girls in the face of women’s rising educational achievements and pursuit of paid jobs.

However, although the prevalence of marriage has declined in most countries, it is still very high across many Asian countries with China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam all experiencing rising rates in recent decades. In some of these countries marriage growth may actually be a response to rising economic growth as couples are in better financial positions to pursue marriage. But this may be a short term effect that will disappear as women’s rising education and labor market performance start to exert downward pressure on marriage.

Declining marriage rates do not necessarily mean that birth rates fall, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where several countries are experiencing lower marriage rates but continued high fertility, even among adolescents. This is concerning, as the ultimate aim of delaying marriage is to delay childbirth. In countries where marriage is no longer the gateway to childbirth, strategies will need to target delaying childbirth directly.


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, and 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.

The latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and international human rights group Walk Free, estimated that on any one day 15 million females live in forced marriages, including 8 million girls under the age of 18. Child marriage is considered a form of forced marriage, given that one and/or both parties cannot express full, free, and informed consent due to their age.

Fifty-six million, or one in five, women aged 20 to 24 was married by 18 years, including 12 million who were married before they turned 15, according to UNICEF. Asia and Africa are host to the vast majority of these child brides – 44 million and 20 million respectively. Three countries – India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria – account for  40% of the 56 million child brides. India alone has 16 million women aged 20 to 24 who were married by 18, Bangladesh has 4.4 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.


To reap the health, education, and labor market benefits of delaying marriage and childbirth, all countries should set a new development goal of increasing the age of first marriage and childbirth to 25 by 2020, and to 30 by 2030. Countries that have already achieved the first goals should move immediately to the second targets.

The subset of countries struggling with high rates of child marriage and its associated ills should prioritize these goals in the context of their overall national development objectives. In those countries where marriage is declining but age at first childbirth is not, including many in sub-Saharan Africa and several high income countries (e.g., USA), strategies should target delaying first childbirth.

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 the harmful marriage-related practices that are relevant in each country context.

In Asian countries changing attitudes towards dowry and patrilocality will be important, while in sub-Saharan Africa changing attitudes towards female genital cutting and polygyny will reduce some of the risks associated with marriage for women and girls, and may reduce the demand for early marriage. As simply outlawing these practices has had little impact in many countries, incentives, including cash and non-cash, for compliance should be explored.

In both regions, reducing the tragically high rates of intimate partner violence which occur most often in marriage will be critical, and legislation outlawing rape and violence within marriage with harsh penalties for perpetrators as well as programs to change attitudes about violence within marriage should enable countries to make progress. Strategies which integrate these approaches are likely to be more successful.

For example, the International Center for Research on Women assessed the “Our Daughter, Our Wealth” program in the Indian State of Haryana and concluded that cash payments to families who kept their daughters in school wasn’t enough to delay early marriage significantly, and that conditional cash transfers also need to address the attitudes and aspirations of community members and elders.

Countries should also undertake reviews of laws and policies that discriminate against married women and which provide incentives for marriage (e.g., tax, wage and social security benefits, etc.), as these can have the perverse effect of encouraging family arrangements that harm women.

Human Rights Watch found that discriminatory marriage laws contributed to female poverty in Bangladesh, and the WomenStats Project maps the large number of countries where family laws still discriminate against married women.

Countries should regularly measure rates of child marriage, rates of adolescent birth, age at first marriage, and age at first childbirth, including by level of income. All efforts to delay family formation and eliminate early marriage and childbirth should prioritize the needs of women and girls from the lowest income households, as they face the greatest risks and pay the highest price for early family formation.

Over the long term, countries should encourage the formation of new family structures that maximize the wellbeing of all members, and especially of women, as they continue to pay enormous economic, social, and political costs as a result of marriage.

In high income countries, marriage and motherhood force many women to disengage to various degrees from the paid workforce, forgoing income and influence, while in too many low and middle income countries early marriage is the gateway to a life of oppression, multiple pregnancies, ill health, violence, and even death for women and girls.

The social and economic costs to women, to communities, and to entire nations of early family formation and the lifetime disempowerment and separation of women from public life are immeasurable.


The United Nations (UN), its agencies and development partners should expand the current focus on ending child marriage and its related ills through campaigns like Girls Not Brides, Girls First Fund, and Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and initiate a new movement to delay the age of family formation, with a special focus on the countries where more than 30% of girls are married before the age of 18.

As part of 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 develop their full capabilities. Women everywhere need more choices when it comes to establishing a family – choices that are fully compatible with female educational attainment, economic independence, and public influence.

The global trend towards fewer marriages is gathering pace everywhere and soon, in several high income countries, a majority of women of working age will not be married but instead will be living independently or cohabiting without marriage. The UN should reinforce the view that in the 21st century education and paid employment are far superior paths to economic security for girls than marriage in all countries. Increasingly women of workforce age with children, whether married or not, will demand family structures that can accommodate their desire for an equitable distribution of family labor, including multi-parent families where 

child rearing is shared across several cohabiting or co-located families, shared families where parents live separately but share responsibility for child raising, and supported group living for sole parent families. The UN should build on initiatives like the World Family Map to monitor the growth of these new family types and to measure their impact on development goals.   

A final note. Above all the UN should promote the view that as our most fundamental institution and the most basic unit of organization within all human societies, the family must function according to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting equally the rights and freedoms of each member and distributing costs, benefits, and opportunities equitably among members. Family types that involve force or coercion, or that require one member to be harmed as a condition of family formation, or that systematically deny a member/s the freedom to protect and pursue his/her own economic, social and political wellbeing are a threat to development. 

Updated January 2024