Child Marriage

Stephanie Sinclair/VII/

Faiz Mohammed, 40, and Ghulam Haider, 11, sit in her home prior to their wedding in the rural Damarda Village, Afghnanistan on Sept. 11, 2005. Ghulam said she is sad to be getting engaged as she wanted to be a teacher.
Credit: Stephanie Sinclair/VII/

Child marriage is marriage before the age of 18, which is usually forced and occurs most often when the bride is 12-16 years old. The husband is typically several years older than his wife, sometimes decades older.

In the United States, this kind of marriage is rarely heard of, and even when it does occur, it is often looked down upon by society. In other parts of the world, the situation is different.

It is estimated that 25,000 girls get married every day!


Most countries that have high rates of child marriage also want to end it. Many countries have laws that set the minimum age for marriage at 18 (sometimes 16), but these laws are hard to enforce because of tradition and community-based practices. Efforts to end child marriage are supported by the United Nations, which declared an international norm of 18 as the minimum age for marriage. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established that marriage should be a consensual choice.

Child marriage is a very a dangerous practice that can rob a girl of future opportunities and cause severe health problems. Young girls are not physically and mentally ready for marriage, sex and having babies. Child brides often suffer from domestic violence and endure forced sex. Many others experience constant pain and even death as a result of complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

One out of seven girls worldwide becomes a child bride, often not knowing the man she marries him. It is a tragic issue of entrenched gender norms. The roots of child marriage are based on a disregard for the rights of girls and women, and a refusal to see them as people who can make their own decisions and have control over their lives.

Where does child marriage occur?
Child marriage is most widespread in West Africa, South Asia, North Africa/Middle East, and Latin America.  According to the International Center for Research on Women, the highest rates are in Niger, Chad and Mali where over 70 percent of girls are married. More girls are at risk of child marriage in India than most other countries combined.

If nothing changes, this human rights crisis will get worse. It is estimated that today there are 60 million girls that were married as children, which will double to 100 million in the next 10 years. Millions more child brides are now adult women with families of their own, and their daughters will likely also become wives while still children.

Girls are not valued as people who have rights. The many reasons why child marriage occurs can be put into two general categories.

1. Social Norms and Customs
Virginity is a symbol of honor, both for the girl and her family.  Families often marry off a daughter early so that when she does start to have sex, it is with her husband.

There is a lot of pressure on girls to become good wives and mothers, because it is one of the only ways a girl can gain status and honor within the family and community.

Alliances between groups are formed through marriage and through the exchange of dowries and bride payments, creating bonds between communities.

2. Poverty
Education is a great solution to child marriage, but it is too expensive for most parents. Sometimes, girls aren’t even allowed to go to school because her parents don’t think it is necessary if she is going to go to another family when she gets married. Often they invest in their sons instead.

Girls are valued less than boys, so poor families view them as burdens. Marrying off a daughter can bring wealth to her parents in the form of a bride price paid by the husband-to-be, which might take the form of goats or other livestock, for example.

Giving away a daughter in marriage means that she is now the responsibility of her husband, and her parents have one less mouth to feed.

In poor areas, mortality rates are high. Communities make their daughters marry earlier, in order to maximize fertility. A girl who starts having children at 14 can have more children than a girl who starts having children at 24.

What Happens?
You’re forced to grow up when you are still a kid! Girls in developing countries face a lot of challenges, but these can be countered by supporting them through education.

Watch “The Girl Effect” video to see how the chain of events might work.

Watch “The Clock is Ticking” video for a more detailed look.

Read part 2 of this discussion guide»