This year 12,000,000 girls will be married before they celebrate their 18th birthday. Sadly these girls will face an astronomically increased risk of experiencing domestic violence, dropping out of school, and dying in childbirth. There are many reasons parents may choose to marry their children off while they are young, but ultimately they are all rooted in the systematic belief that girls are less valuable than boys.
It is widely believed, in the Global South, that girls aren’t worth as much as boys. This can be seen in the lack of education girls receive in many countries and the tendency these same cultures have to ignore girls’ health concerns. It is no different in the familial structure of these countries: if a girl is not as valuable as a boy, why should a family continue to allow daughters to be a burden on their resources? Often, girls are pulled out of school to be married to older men, and the burden of financial responsibility is passed onto their new husbands. From the family’s perspective, she is now being useful to society and is not a drain on their limited resources. Girls who live in poorer households are almost twice as likely to become child brides than their male counterparts.
Women’s sexuality is another important factor in high rates of child marriages. In many cultures, a girl’s virginity is perceived to be her most valuable asset, so marrying her while she is young is a way to exploit this perceived value. Additionally, marrying a girl younger decreases her chances of becoming sexually active outside of marriage and “shaming” her family. In Ethiopia, child marriages often come hand in hand with female genital mutilation, a practice which removes or greatly decreases a women’s ability to experience sexual pleasure. Many men won’t marry a woman unless she has undergone genial mutilation, otherwise they believe she will be promiscuous and uncontrollable, since her ability to experience sexual pleasure will be intact.
Often, because of deeply held cultural beliefs, parents believe they are doing what is best for their daughter. In situations of extreme poverty, daughters might be married off to an older man to ensure she is taken care of in the future. Alternatively, for countries that experience higher rates of conflict, parents may marry off their daughters in order to ensure their safety.
Child brides are also more likely to die in childbirth due to the fact that younger girls’ pelvic bones may not have matured enough to allow for safe child delivery. Girls frequently die in childbirth or end up with obstetric fistulas, a serious condition which usually results in abandonment or death (read more here). Marriage to older men also makes girls more susceptible to contracting HIV since older men have likely had more sexual encounters.
Additionally, child brides are prone to higher rates of domestic violence. One study found that girls in India who had been married before the age of 18 were twice as likely to report being abused by their husbands. Many end up feeling hopeless, helpless, and struggling with severe depression.
No matter the reason, child marriages greatly decreases the possibilities in a girl’s future. Child marriage systematically disempowers women. Without the chance to get an education, start a career and become independent and self-sufficient financially and socially, women become dependent on their husbands for food, shelter, and protection, and are often left helpless if their husbands pass away.
However, all hope is not lost. Child marriage has been slowly declining over recent years. The amount of girls who were married before 18 has decreased by 15% in the last ten years. However, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to eradicate child marriage by 2030 is nowhere close to being met. Hopefully, with greater awareness and unified efforts, we’ll continue to see a decrease in child marriage and allow for more girls to become empowered women.
Well, now that you know, what can you do?
Directly support effective grassroots efforts to stop child marriage through Girls Not Brides
Partner with Care Network in their work to stop the Marrying of Underage Girls