How to tackle the child marriage crisis

By Gordon Brown
March 9, 2012

By the end of today another 25,000 young children will have been robbed of their childhoods, cheated of their right to an education, exposed to life-threatening health risks, and set on a path that often leads to a life of servitude and poverty. Their plight is the result of widespread and systematic human rights violations. Yet the source of the injustice they suffer is hidden in the shadows of debates on international development: They are child brides.

Each year, 1.5 million girls — many just starting their adolescent years — become child brides. It was shocking for us to discover the sheer scale of the problem and to understand its impact on human rights and the life cycle of opportunities, and most tragically of all, on maternal and infant death rates.

Early marriage is a hidden crisis. Because the victims are overwhelmingly young, poor and female, their voices are seldom heard by governments. Their concerns do not register on the agendas of global summits. But early marriage is destroying human potential and reinforcing gender inequalities on a global scale. It is subjecting young girls to the elevated health risks that come with early pregnancy and childbirth. It is reinforcing the subordination of women. And it is holding back progress toward the United Nation’s 2015 goal of universal primary education. Without educating girls who are not in school today and preventing them from marrying, we cannot ever hope to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The full extent of child marriage is not widely recognized. A new report just published by my office identified 16 countries in which over half of the young women were married by the age of 18. On a regional basis, West Africa has the highest incidence of child marriage, with Mali, Chad and Niger recording rates in excess of 70 percent. The practice is also widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, and in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, where many children marry at a far younger age than 18.

Yet one of the gravest injustices suffered by child brides is the denial of education. Marriage and premature pregnancies keep millions of girls out of school, imprisoned in a world of diminished opportunity. Once married or pregnant, few child brides make it back into school. For example, our research shows that only 2 percent of married girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in Nigeria attend school, compared with 69 percent of unmarried girls. Denied the chance to realize their potential through education, many of these girls will be condemned to lives blighted by poverty, illiteracy and powerlessness.

A casualty of child marriage, education is also a fundamental solution to the problem. Women who are educated marry later, especially if they reach secondary school. Compared with women who have either no education or just primary schooling, the median age of marriage among girls with a secondary education is more than two years higher in Bangladesh and Nigeria, three years higher in Ethiopia and Mali, and four years higher in Chad.

Keeping girls in school and out of child marriages will also save lives. If, through a combination of education and other policies, half of the world’s teenagers delayed birth until after the age of 20, the associated decline in infant mortality rates would save 166,000 young lives a year — or over half a million lives in the three and a half years until the 2015 Millennium Development Goal on child mortality. And not only would children’s lives be saved, but mothers’ as well. Over 70,000 teenage mothers die in pregnancy or childbirth every year, a number that has remained static while it appears that for older women the figures have been coming down.

Getting girls into school and keeping them there would of course make child marriage less likely and accelerate progress toward the 2015 goal of Education for All. Experience across many countries has demonstrated what works. Financial incentives in the form of conditional cash transfers for parents who keep their daughters in school, together with mentoring, engagement with communities and persuasion all have a role to play. The problem is that current efforts are fragmented and operating at an insufficient level of ambition.

To tackle the child marriage crisis, we need an integrated global campaign that brings the issue of child marriage in from the sidelines to the center of the international development agenda. All governments in countries where child marriage is prevalent should prepare a national strategy for halving, over the next decade, the level of marriage before the age of 18. U.N. agencies and the World Bank, along with bilateral donors and regional development agencies in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, must become more actively engaged and better coordinated in their response to early marriage. And the European Union should host a global summit on child marriage in 2013 to prepare the way for a concerted strategy for international cooperation.

Finally, we must take action through existing Education for All partnerships. As the primary multilateral financing vehicle in education, the Global Partnership for Education should mobilize finance aimed at supporting governments and non-governmental organizations that seek to keep young girls out of early marriage. It should establish a financing window directed toward supporting conditional cash transfers and other policies targeting young girls at risk of early marriage.

To be sure, there are certainly no easy solutions to the crisis of child marriage. It will take leadership, perseverance and global cooperation to turn the tide. In a week when the world’s attention is focused on the contribution of women and girls, what better moment at which to begin the work?

PHOTO: Child bride Krishna, 12, plays on an improvised swing outside her house in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, India, July 30 , 2011.  REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Brilliant! So important to put this in the public arena and keep it there. Latest news from Afghanistan so depressing for girls and women.

Posted by FHinde | Report as abusive

interesting tidbit to share – up to about 1900 a.d. woman in the u.s. got married as young as 11 years old, most waited til at least 13, some til 16 and a very few til 18. the ones that waited til their 20′s were called old maids. just passing it on.

Posted by oneshotal | Report as abusive

It seems as if the real problem is a stigma against females continuing their education after/during marriage/pregnancy which impacts females regardless of age and inclusive of the pompous western countries. As oneshotal noted it was no different here a mere 150 year ago, and yet no one would think of taking this condescending tone toward *our* relatively recent ancestors.

Posted by JustRealistic | Report as abusive

I applaude Gordon Brown for writing this opinion piece. Female children forced to endure a life of early marriage with little or no education is inhumane. It should be abhorred in any time or place. Teenage girls in villages of India where 40% of child marriges occur often choose to move to a city and live a life keeping house for another family rather than being married off at a young age. I applaude them, also.

Posted by kitesfly | Report as abusive

JustRealistic – 150 years ago, woman in our society also were disenfranchised, held back, underrepresented, and repressed both formally and informally. You’re right – at the time no one thought to take this tone, however with the benefit of hindsight we realize just how horrid the conditions were under which women toiled. Now, obviously, women are an equally productive part of all facets of society.

In these other regions discussed in the article, this has yet to happen. Instead, women are subjugated in ways even our “relatively recent ancestors” would find abhorrent. This is not an issue of cultural (or temporal-cultural) relativism. This is an issue of extraordinarily harmful subjugation and statutory abuse.

Posted by clearance42 | Report as abusive

I don’t advocate child marriage, but one should note that it is common in less technological cultures, where children represent workers for agricultural or other duties. This is a function of economics and survival, and not necessarily some kind of attempt by society to reduce the status of women. In these cases the answer is to reduce the poverty. Of course, other cultures do encourage putting down women as a class. That is a more difficult problem to fix.

As a side note, my grandmother married at age 13 (in 1923). That was in east Texas, and she went on to have 9 kids, 7 of which survived infancy – and most of them got a college education, after working in the fields while at home. Everyone graduated high school, but I actually don’t know if the girls attended (or wanted to attend) college.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

We need the issue in our daily discourse. The past is not our compass; we have come to an age where we have access to education and choices for a better life to be the basic privilege if not the right, but not for every child. Why not? Because the battle that won this right for children was painful, demanded a high price and we have become wimps to face this challenge.
Thank you for the article.

Posted by OfCoUrSe10 | Report as abusive

We need this issue in our daily discourse. The past is not our compass; we have come to an age where we have access to education and we provide ample choices for a better life, which is the basic privilege if not the right, but not for every child. Why not? Because the battle that won this right for children was painful, demanded a high price and we have become wimps to face this challenge.
Thank you for the article.

Posted by NSal | Report as abusive

It is important to note that the extension of “childhood” to age 18 is both very culture bound and very modern, being significantly less than 100 years old. It has achieved a virtually religious status in the USA and western Europe, so much so that it is considered outrageous to the point of sacrilege. It is not acceptable to question its correctness or consequences. It is blindly advocated, as in this piece.

This is a disservice. On the face of it, it is an assertion that nature and the genetics that determine the age when humans are able to reproduce are both fundamentally wrong and obviously need to be interfered with to advance the cause of humanity. This is clearly quasi-religious rather than rational.

If this were as clear as implied in this article, why has no known culture before the last century followed the recommendations made here?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010. He is currently an adviser to the World Economic Forum.

What this lovely title fails to note is that Gordon the gopher Brown, bankrupted the UK, destroyed education, destroyed manufacturing, along with his chum Tony B’Liar killed hundreds of British troops by sending them to die to appease the Yanks, he sold off UK gold reserves for a pittance AFTER announcing the sale – this is the man who ‘saved the world’ & who reckoned he’d ended Boom & Bust in the UK – he is a complete idiot!

Posted by mgb500 | Report as abusive

It is so pretentious and easy for westerners to criticize and point out age old costumes in third world societies. It has been in style for some time, for the pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-philanthropists and pseudo-Human Rights Activists. So ignorant, they are pathetic.

Early ‘childhood’ marriage was predominant in most western and other societies for thousands of years,and up to recent times as well. Family-economics and a short life expectancy were the underlying reasons.

Ignored are the ‘real abuses’ re; child labor, violence and sexual abuse. They so conveniently forget that less than a hundred years ago and up to very recent times, these same western ‘enlightened’ societies were widely abusing these same human rights, not only within their own societies but also in their deplorable colonial territories, even more so.

The reason for all this, in all societies, is an economic one. If a more equal distribution of wealth existed, these problems would not be so prevalent, then and today.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

If Gordon Brown is just finding out that everyone isn’t like his English constituents he should be ashamed. Thet have done perfectly well with their own culture in those countries. Of course, he and his American masters would change the whole world into their corrupted image!

Posted by anonymot | Report as abusive

I am not a supporter of child marriage, but it is a sheer Hippocracy when it comes from a western writer,who doesn’t want to address the problem of child sex and drug abuse and early pregnancy (no marriage and no-loyalty)in their own culture. How many kids get pregnant in the high school? Doesn’t that affect their education and life?
I will say almost 98% of the kids having boyfriend and girlfriends in the middle school and having sex-peer pressure of having boyfriends and girlfriends is a one form of child marriage (without vows) or not? and on the top of that religious pressure to carry on pregnancy and have child is a similar scenario Mr. Brown is scoffing as a child marriage in other than western culture.

Posted by bhupe | Report as abusive

Child marriages are part of the problem of lack of education for women. It is also true that teen pregnancies in other cultures are a similar problem. The biggest problem has been overpopulation. It must be recognised as the root cause of nearly all environmental problems. A girl who has a child at 15 has twice the rate of a woman who waits until 30. This high rate of breeding in a world already far into overshoot, must stop and reverse before ecological collapse causes a rapid die-off. Western counties will not be immune, and the longer massive pollution exists, the greater chance this die off will be followed by extinction of most other species and humans, too.

Posted by Val71 | Report as abusive