Sharon J.’s marriage at age 14 in Tanzania dashed her hopes for the future: “My dream was
to study to be a journalist. Until today, when I watch news or listen to the radio and
someone is reading news, it causes me a lot of pain because I wish it were me.”
Around the world, marriage is often idealized as ushering in love, happiness, and security.
But for Sharon and other girls, getting married is often one of the worst things that can
happen. Roughly one in three girls in the developing world marries before age 18; one in
nine marries before turning 15.
Human Rights Watch investigations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Nepal, South
Sudan, Tanzania, Yemen, and Zimbabwe have found that early marriage has dire life-long
consequences—often completely halting or crippling a girl’s ability to realize a wide range
of human rights. Leaving school early both contributes to, and results from, marrying
young. Other impacts include marital rape, heightened risk of domestic violence, poor
access to decent work, exploitation doing unpaid labor, risk of HIV transmission, and a
range of health problems due to early childbearing.
At present, unprecedented attention is being paid to child marriage globally. Prominent
voices in and out of government—including those of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of
Bangladesh, and Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi—have publicly committed to
fight child marriage in their countries.
But change is often incremental, and promises do not always lead to effective action.
Despite setting a goal of ending child marriage in Bangladesh by 2041, Sheikh Hasina has
also proposed legislation that would lower the age of marriage for girls to 16 from the
current age of 18. In April 2015, Malawi adopted a new law setting the minimum age of
marriage at 18; however, it does not override the constitution, which does not explicitly
prohibit child marriage under 15, and allows 15- to 18-year-olds to marry with parental
International donors, United Nations agencies, and civil society groups, including Girls Not
Brides, a coalition of more than 500 organizations worldwide, have also rallied behind the
cause. The challenges are formidable. Child marriage—fueled by poverty and deeply
rooted norms that undervalue and discriminate against girls—will not disappear if the
concerted attention it now enjoys subsides in favor of the next hot-button issue.
A recent development may help sustain attention: the UN Sustainable Development Goals
adopted in September 2015 include eliminating child marriage as a key target by 2030 for
advancing gender equality.
Meeting this target requires a combination of approaches that have proved difficult to
achieve for other women’s rights issues: a commitment of political will and resources over
many years; willingness to acknowledge adolescent girls’ sexuality and empower them
with information and choices; and true coordination across various sectors, including
education, health, justice, and economic development.
Tackling the Roots of Child Marriage
I faced a lot of problems in marriage. I was young and did not know how to
be a wife. I was pregnant, had to look after my husband, do housework,
deal with in-laws, and work on the farm. My worst time was when I was
pregnant; I had to do all this and deal with a pregnancy while I was just a
—Elina V., married at age 15, Malawi
The main causes of child marriage vary across regions and communities but often center
around control over girls’ sexuality.
In some countries, such as Tanzania, Human Rights Watch interviewed many girls who said
they felt forced to marry after becoming pregnant. In other countries, such as Bangladesh,
parents hasten a daughter’s marriage to avoid the risk that she will be sexually harassed,
romantically involved, or simply perceived as romantically involved, prior to marriage.
A common thread is that most girls—economically dependent, with little autonomy or
support, and pressured by social norms—feel they had no choice but to comply with their
Discriminatory gender norms in many places, including traditions that dictate that a girl
live with her husband’s family, while a boy remains with and financially supports his
parents, contributes to perceptions that daughters are an economic burden while sons are
a long-term investment.
Poor access to quality education is another contributing factor. When schools are too far
away, too expensive, or the journey too dangerous, families often pull out their girls or they
drop out on their own and are subsequently much more likely to be married off.
Even when schools are accessible, teacher absenteeism and poor quality education can
mean that neither girls nor their parents feel it is worth the time or expense. Girls may also
be kept out of school because they are expected to work instead—either in the home, or
sometimes as paid labor from young ages. These same drawbacks, combined with lack of
support from school administrators or from husbands and in-laws, often prevent married
girls from continuing their education.
Many girls and their families cite poverty and dowry as another factor for marriage. The
stress of “another mouth to feed” hastens some parents’ decisions to marry off their
daughters early. In Bangladesh, where a girl’s parents pay dowry to the groom, the younger
the girl, the lower the dowry—meaning that some poor families believe that if they don’t
marry their daughters early they will not be able to marry them at all.
In contrast, in South Sudan, the girl’s family will receive dowry from the groom, either in
the form of cattle, an important economic asset, or money. For example, Ayen C., from Bor
County, said, “My husband paid 75 cows as dowry for me. We never talked or courted
before we got married. When I learned about the marriage, I felt very bitter. I told my father,
‘I don’t want to go to this man.’ He said, ‘I have loved the cattle that this man has, you will
Many girls have miserably little access to sexual and reproductive health information and
services—whether on how one gets pregnant, reliable contraception methods, protection
against sexually transmitted infections, prenatal services, or emergency obstetric care.
As a result, child marriage is closely linked to early—and risky—childbearing. The
consequences can be fatal: complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the secondleading
cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 globally. In other cases, the stress of delivery
in physically immature bodies can cause obstetric fistulas, a tear between a girl’s vagina
and rectum that results in constant leaking of urine and feces. Girls suffering this condition
are often ostracized and abandoned by their families and communities.
According to 2013 data, 74 percent of new HIV infections among African adolescents are in
girls, many of them in the context of marriage where limited agency in the relationship and
pressure to have children contribute to lack of condom use.
Domestic violence is another risk of marriage, perpetrated by a girl’s husband or in-laws,
including psychological, physical, and sexual violence, such as marital rape. While not all
child marriages are marked by domestic violence, the risk increases when there are large
age gaps between a girl and her husband.
Many countries fail to criminalize marital rape, and even when it is a crime, child brides
have little ability to seek help. And in general, limited information about their rights, lack
of access to services especially legal assistance and emergency shelters, discriminatory
divorce, inheritance, and custody laws, and rejection from their own families, can leave
many trapped in abusive marriages with no means of escape.
Armed conflict heightens girls’ risk of child marriage and other abuses. For example, forced
marriage of girls is a devastating tactic of war used by extremist groups such as Islamic
State (also known as ISIS) and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Human Rights Watch interviewed
Yezidi girls in Iraq who gave harrowing accounts of being captured, separated from their
families, and bought and sold into sexual slavery. One young woman who escaped
described being taken to a wedding hall with 60 girls and women where ISIS fighters told
them to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children.”
Environmental factors also play a role. Poor families living in areas at high risk of natural
disaster, including as a result of climate change, such as in Bangladesh, have cited the
resulting insecurity as a factor pushing them to marry their daughters early. For example,
flooding of crops or the loss of land can deepen a family’s poverty, and parents said they
felt pressure to hasten a young daughter’s marriage in the wake of a natural disaster or in
anticipation of one.
The Way Forward
While the harms caused by child marriage are grim, the benefits of ending the practice are
transformative and far-reaching. Tackling child marriage is a strategic way to advance
women’s rights and empowerment in several areas, ranging from health, education, work,
freedom from violence, and participation in public life.
But child marriage is complex and varies widely around the world. Governments committed
to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals target of ending child marriage by 2030
will need to employ a holistic, comprehensive approach that is tailored to local contexts
and diverse communities.
And while the rate of child marriage has begun to drop in some places, it has increased in
others. For example, civil society groups report a growing incidence of child marriage
among Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Adopting and implementing cohesive national legal frameworks that uphold international
human rights standards is key. This includes making 18 the minimum marriage age,
avoiding loopholes such as exceptions for parental consent, ensuring the laws require free
and full consent of both spouses, requiring proof of age before marriage licenses are
issued, and imposing penalties on anyone who threatens or harms anyone who refuses to
Governments should ensure these protections are not undermined by religious or
customary laws and traditions, and should regularly engage with religious and community
Learning about what types of interventions work—and for whom—is key. Only some of the
proliferation of interventions have been adequately monitored or evaluated to know which
deserve to be replicated and expanded. In a 2013 review, the Washington DC-based
International Center for Research on Women found that only 11 of 51 countries with a
prevalence of child marriage greater than 25 percent had evaluated initiatives that fight
An assessment of 23 programs out of 150 found evidence supporting the effectiveness of:
1) empowering girls with information and support networks; 2) ensuring girls’ access to
quality education; 3) engaging and educating parents and community members about
child marriage; 4) providing economic incentives and support to girls’ families; and 5)
establishing and implementing a strong legal framework, such as a minimum age of
The Population Council, an international action-research organization, conducted a
rigorous, multi-year study that found offering families in Tanzania and Ethiopia economic
incentives, such as livestock, to keep their daughters unmarried and in school led to girls
ages 15 to 17 being significantly (two-thirds and 50 percent respectively) less likely to be
married compared to those in a community not participating in the program.
In Ethiopia, in communities where girls 12 to 14 were provided free school supplies, they
were 94 percent less likely to be married than a comparison group. Communities that
engaged in sensitization programs about the value of educating girls and the harms of
child marriage also had fewer married girls.
A particularly powerful message that communities and parents respond to is information
about the harms of early childbearing. Correspondingly, access to information about
reproductive and sexual health is key for adolescents to understand their bodies, promote
respect and consensual conduct in relationships, and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
However, while governments have little problem promoting interventions that generally
garner broad public support such as providing school supplies, many remain reluctant to
introduce programs that might trigger a backlash. They avoid offering comprehensive
sexuality education in schools or through other community mechanisms, and ensuring that
adolescents, as well as adult women, get full information about contraception and
affordable access to health services, including safe and legal abortion.
The effort to end child marriage cannot succeed without greater acceptance of adolescent
girls’ sexuality and their rights to make their own informed choices about their bodies,
their relationships, and their sexual activity.
Governments and donors can rally around the idea that a 12-year-old girl should be in
school rather than a marriage. Countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, the United
Kingdom, and the United States have been lead donors in combatting child marriage. But
the challenge will be whether they can make sure child marriage interventions are not
standalone efforts disconnected from other undertakings to empower women and poor
communities and promote education and health.
Governments, whether as donors or as implementers, need to address some tough
questions if they are going to make genuine progress. Do their education programs include
special outreach to married girls? Do national plans of action on gender-based violence
and “women, peace, and security” include efforts/steps to end child marriage? Do their
police training programs on gender-based violence include policing methods to fight child
marriage, such as prosecuting local officials who sign marriage certificates for underage
Such coordination is crucial to ensuring that critical opportunities are not missed when
allocating resources and programming that will be dedicated across the expansive
Sustainable Development Goals agenda.
Efforts to end child marriage also mean the donors should press governments to meet their
obligations under international law to eliminate the practice. Key international human
rights treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the
Convention on the Rights of the Child. While there is growing evidence of the effectiveness
of a number of community-level approaches, government cooperation, law enforcement,
and national-level initiatives are key to scale and sustainability.
Too often, nongovernmental organizations and donors support innovative programs, but
local government officials undermine their impact by ignoring or even facilitating child
marriage (for example, by changing the age on a birth or marriage certificate in return for
bribes) or local police fail to enforce laws that make child marriage a crime.
Similarly, critical opportunities are missed when government health workers cannot talk to
adolescents about sexuality and contraception, or government school teachers and
principals are not mandated or encouraged to reach out to girls dropping out of school to
One of the most striking parallels across Human Rights Watch’s research on child marriage
is how girls who married young desperately long for a better future for their daughters.
Kalpana T., interviewed by Human Rights Watch in southern Nepal, is not sure of her age
but said she married after she had three or four menstrual periods, and now has three
daughters ages 5 and under. She never went to school.
“My sisters and I all had to work in the fields for the landlords for money from as soon as
we were old enough to know about work,” she said. “I had to marry because my parents
wanted me to. I don’t want this for my daughter. I am uneducated and I don’t know how the
world works…. I can’t count money. I want my daughter to be educated and have a better
life than what I have right now.”
The Sustainable Development Goals target on ending child marriage could bolster Kalpana
T.’s daughters’ chances of having more opportunities than their mother. But a huge
amount of coordination, willingness to tackle socially sensitive issues, and sustained
commitment and resources is needed before this lofty goal can lead to meaningful
change—both for girls in Kalpana T.’s village and elsewhere around the world.
Nisha Varia is advocacy director for the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch