In many developing countries, the practice of child marriage is illegal—yet it still thrives. One in three girls is married before reaching age 18 and one in nine is married under the age of 15. Child marriage often compromises a girl’s education and threatens their lives and health. Child marriage results in early pregnancy and social isolation, placing the girls at increased risk of complications during childbirth and domestic violence. Despite laws against it, child marriage remains widespread in part because of poverty, traditions and insecurity.
Poverty is the reason most commonly cited by girls and family members as the driving decision to marry young. Families experiencing extreme financial hardship arrange marriages for their daughters specifically because of lack of food. Poor families also have an incentive to marry their daughters off when they are younger and require less of a dowry. Girl’s families traditionally have to give a “dowry” in the form of cash, jewelry or goods to the groom’s family for the wedding. Child brides are considered beautiful and pure which requires less of a dowry than an older girl who will require a more expensive dowry. In countries where the groom’s family pays the bride a price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.
Tradition and Societal Pressure
Traditional practices often go unquestioned because they have been a part of the community for a very long time. Marriage is seen as a business agreement between families arranged by the elder males and in many countries, marriages for love are frowned upon. Societal pressure within a community can also lead families to marry off their young daughters. Families describe societal pressure to have their daughters married to prevent them from having a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage. In countries like Bangladesh, parents will marry their daughters to save the family’s respect once boys start showing an interest. In Albania, girls are pressured to marry early because it is believed it will prevent premarital sex.
Marriage is seen as a cover of respect and protection for women. By not going to school, it reduces the risk of being sexually active outside the house or be harassed while commuting. Young girls walking alone to school are at risk of sexual exploitation or rape—either of which would bring shame to the family and end any hope of marrying in the future. Child marriage also increases during times of humanitarian crisis or after a natural disaster. Refugee emergencies, floods, earthquakes, wars and other times of crisis, push vulnerable families over the edge. Parents resort to marrying their young daughters to older men as a way to protect them from violence, and poverty.
The tradition of child marriage becomes human trafficking when families or third parties profit from the sale of a girl. What used to be a cultural practice has too often become a business where mostly poor rural families try to sell their daughters to wealthy families in marriage. This takes away a girl’s agency and denies them the chance to make their own decisions about marriage.