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Early and forced marriage - facts, figures and what you can do

Plan UK wants child marriage to become a thing of the past. Here we provide statistics, analyse the legal issues, the causes and consequences, and explain how education is key to putting an end to early and forced marriage.

14 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year.

That’s around …

  • 1,166,666 a month
  • 269230 a week
  • 38,461 a day
  • 27 every minute

Or, around one girl every two seconds.

One in every five girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18. One in nine marries before they reach the age of 15. In countries like Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic (CAR), the rate of early and forced marriage is 60 per cent and over. Child brides are particularly prevalent in South Asia (46 per cent) and in sub-Saharan Africa (38 per cent).

Countries with the highest rates of early and forced marriage in Europe include Georgia (17 per cent), Turkey (14 per cent) and Ukraine (10 per cent). At least 10 per cent of adolescents marry before the age of 18 in Britain and France.

Early and forced marriage in Africa
Some countries in Africa are amongst those with the highest proportion of early marriage, including Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Malawi. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of early and forced marriage. 14.3 million girls in the region become child brides (are married before they reach 18). Among the countries where the rate of early and forced marriage exceeds 70 per cent – Niger, Chad and Mali – adolescent fertility and maternal mortality rates are also high.
In countries where the legal age of marriage differs by sex, the age for women is always lower. In Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the legal age of marriage is 18 for males and only 15 for females.

Plan UK’s Take the Vow petition is urging the UK government to take action to end early and forced marriage around the world, so that girls can stay in education and fulfil their potential.  Take the Vow

Is early or forced marriage legal?

Marriage is a formalised, binding partnership between consenting adults. Child marriage involves either one or both spouses being children and may take place under civil, religious or customary laws with or without formal registration. A child is usually someone under 18.

According to the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - marriage before the age of 18 shouldn’t be allowed since children don’t have the ‘full maturity and capacity to act’.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be ‘entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. Where one of the parties getting married is under 18, consent cannot always be assumed to be ‘free and full’.

Why does early and forced marriage happen?

The causes of early and forced marriage are complex, interrelated and dependent on individual circumstances and context. But the practice is driven by these main factors:

  • gender inequality – women and girls often occupy a lower status in societies as a result of social and cultural traditions, attitudes, beliefs that deny them their rights and stifle their ability to play an equal role in their homes and communities
  • poverty – in families on a low income, girls may be viewed as an economic burden. The perception of girls’ potential to earn an income as comparatively poor pushes girls out of their homes and into marriage
  • negative traditional or religious practices – in many countries the importance of preserving family ‘honour’ and girls’ virginity is such that parents push their daughters into marriage well before they are ready. There is a belief that marriage safeguards against ‘immoral’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’
  • failure to enforce laws – sometimes families are not even aware they are breaking the law. In some countries early marriage is so prevalent, prosecutions are seldom brought
  • conflicts, disasters and emergencies – disasters and emergencies increase economic pressures on households and many families that wouldn’t previously have considered early marriage turn to it as a last resort.

What are the consequences of early and forced marriage?

Early and forced marriage contributes to driving girls into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. They are likely to experience:

  • violence, abuse and forced sexual relations – women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten and to believe that husbands can justify it
  • poor sexual and reproductive health – child brides are more likely to contract HIV than their unmarried counterparts because of their greater sexual exposure, often with an older husband who by virtue of his age is more at risk of being HIV positive
  • illiteracy and lack of education – girls tend to drop out of school shortly before or when they get married. There is a commonplace view that once a girl is married she has crossed the threshold into adulthood and no longer needs an education.

What is the role of education in preventing early and forced marriage?

Even where education is available, the cost, quantity, quality and content of schooling has an impact on whether girls are forced to drop out and marry early. Plan Egypt found that poor quality schooling is behind some school drop-out – over-crowding, unqualified teachers and gender-based violence increase the viability of early marriage as an alternative option.

The expectation that girls will marry and not work impacts on the standard of education they receive – teachers may give them less attention and poorer access to learning materials than boys. The cost of a daughter’s education may not be viewed as a sound investment.

Supporting girls to complete a quality basic education is best done by focusing on girls’ rights. This means making sure learning environments are:

  • safe – that girls can get to and from school safely, are in a secure environment, their specific needs are met and penalties for teachers who sexually abuse pupils are enforced
  • accessible – that education opportunities are available and free, schools are built close to communities, there are separate sanitation facilities, parents and communities are involved in running schools and there are communications campaigns on the importance of girls’ education
  • inspiring – that girls are taught by qualified teachers (especially female ones), teachers are trained to understand girls’ rights and gender equality, curricula for girls are relevant to their needs, including teaching on sexual and reproductive health.

Getting and keeping girls in school may be one of the best ways to foster later, consensual marriage, while also contributing the delayed sexual initiation, lower rates of HIV and AIDs and greater gender equality.

Plan and other NGOs have run education programmes around the world which have increased girls’ school attendance and reduced the frequency of early marriage. Such programmes increase awareness of girls’ rights and empower girls to resist becoming child brides. Plan believes that improving education and school retention for girls in the poorest countries plays a crucial role in eliminating early and forced marriage. It will clearly take decisive and positive action from national governments and the international community to bring about change.

How can governments help?

Human rights instruments the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are relevant to forced and early marriage. 186 countries are party to CEDAW. Signatories to such conventions do not always ensure that commitments are implemented and enforced at national level. Proper enforcement is needed – as is greater awareness amongst girls and young women of their rights.

Plan UK wants the UK Government to increase its efforts to end early and forced marriage through enhanced co-operation across Whitehall, an increase in Department for International Development programming in developing countries and by using its influence to push for effective international policy and action.

What can you do? 

Plan UK’s Take the Vow petition is urging the UK government to take action to end early and forced marriage around the world, so that girls can stay in education and fulfil their potential. Help us end child marriage - Take the Vow.

Sources: United Nations Population Fund 'Marrying too young' 2012
'Breaking Vows' Plan UK 2010

  • Our campaign to ensure girls in the world’s poorest countries can access education
  • Sign Plan's petition so girls can say 'no' to marriage
  • Learn how Plan's projects are helping girls move themselves from poverty to a future with opportunity
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