Targeting Girls in the Name of Tradition: Child Marriage

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
A Discussion With the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Washington, DC
July 15, 2010

Child marriage is a serious and harmful practice that robs children—primarily girls—of their childhood and imperils their health and lives. This devastating practice is all too common around the world. In my travels, I have met with countless victims of child marriage who suffered unspeakable abuses and whose stories underscore the dire need for action to combat this problem.

From Yemen, I met a child named Nujood Ali, who was forced by her father at the age of 9 to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. This man was violent and physically and sexually abused her. Desperate to gain her freedom, she found her way to the courthouse and to a female lawyer, Shada Nasser, who came to her rescue. The lawyer bravely took her case and that of several other child brides seeking divorces. Today the girls are back in school and have returned to their young lives.

Cases like Nujood’s are far too common. According to the most recent Demographic, Maternal and Child Health Survey in Yemen, 57 percent of the poorest 20 percent of girls marry before the age of 18. In 1998 the law setting the minimum age for marriage at 15 was revoked. Because of international attention garnered by cases like Nujood’s, the Yemeni Parliament recently voted to set the minimum age for marriage at 17. However, the bill has been withdrawn and sent to a committee for further review.

This issue is also a problem in Afghanistan, where estimates indicate that as many as 70 percent of reported cases of domestic violence have roots in child marriage. In what appears to be a growing phenomenon, some young brides are being sold by their husbands. I recently visited a shelter in the region that housed several victims of child marriage. The girls told me about the horrors they had endured and why they had no choice but to run away – and, in so doing, risked even greater punishment. The girls I met were fortunate to have been able to escape their circumstances and to find themselves in a safe space; yet far too often, such actions are seen not as survival, but as punishable acts.

The Problem of Child Marriage

Child marriage is one of the most prevalent forms of sexual exploitation of girls. It is a practice that robs girls of critical educational and economic empowerment opportunities and prevents them from developing to their full potential. Their childhoods are effectively shortchanged; their education ended; their emotional and social development interrupted. Girls are often damaged by marital rape, and, if they become pregnant, they experience greater risk of both death and chronic disability than older mothers.

Every day, approximately 25,000 girls become child brides. It is estimated that one in seven girls in the developing world marries before she turns 15. These young women are deprived of their childhoods, likely to be illiterate and burdened with the responsibilities of marriage and family long before they are suited to take on such tasks.

It is unclear whether these statistics capture the totality of child marriages due to lack of data and because traditional or religious marriages may not be reported. Research indicates that early marriage is often underreported in areas where it is known to occur, especially for children under 14. Even in countries where the average age of marriage has increased, it is possible that there are large sub-populations still marrying very young. In many places, children without a birth certificate have no recourse against age-related abuses like child marriages. This is a huge problem for the estimated 40 million children, or one-third of the world total, who are born unregistered each year. In countries where the laws regarding the minimum age of marriage are not implemented, the inadequacy of birth registration systems reinforces the de facto legalization of the practice.

The right to free and full consent to marriage is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1995 Beijing International Conference on Women called for the drafting of laws precisely fixing minimum age for marriage, and The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommends this age to be 18. Despite this, some countries have no law establishing a minimum age of marriage. Even in countries where laws regulating marriage age exist, these laws are too often ignored or circumvented. Marriages are not registered, or registered much later, and documents often are falsified. Exceptions to these laws can be made for religious or customary reasons. Developing countries often permit child marriages with the consent of parents, legal guardians, or judicial or religious authorities without requiring consent from the bride or groom.

Child marriage is a symptom of a greater epidemic. It is not enough to place a band-aid on the problem by enacting or strengthening legal prohibitions on this practice, as important as that is. We must also address the virus causing the symptoms - the low status of women and girls. Far too often, as a female, a girl’s only value is her ability to keep a house and produce children; as a result, parents see no reason to educate or invest in her. The low status accorded to girls in too many places is reflected by a Chinese poem that sadly sums up the lack of value placed on the girl-child in the eyes of her society:

We keep a dog to watch the house,
A pig is useful too,
We keep a cat to catch a mouse,
But what can we do
With a girl like you?

We also know that child marriage is fueled by poor economic conditions. Girls born into poverty are more likely to be married too soon, and to significantly older men. Poor families have fewer resources and incentives and little will to invest in their daughters. Without access to economic opportunities, girls often have no option other than to marry young.

In some communities, girls are married off as a financial transaction. For families who lack the means to care for their children, the marrying of a daughter relieves a part of the burden. Daughters are often sold by fathers as a means of settling debts, in order for the family to pay a smaller dowry, or even resolve a feud or land dispute. In the context of child marriage, daughters are often treated as chattel - seen only as objects in the eyes of their society, objects that add no benefit to the family. In Mauritania, child marriage has evolved into a business in which fathers sell their young daughters to foreign husbands, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars. These young girls are more than just child brides; they are frequently trafficking victims who are forced to endure exploitation in a foreign land.

Child marriage is inextricably linked with the cycle of poverty. Girls already in school are often forced to terminate their education when they marry. Married girls are prevented from taking advantage of education and work opportunities because of limited mobility, household responsibilities, pregnancy and raising children, and other social restrictions.

Studies show a strong association between child marriage and early childbirth, partly because girls are pressured to prove their fertility soon after marrying and because they have little access to information on reproductive health or the ability to influence decision-making on such matters. Problems associated with pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide. Girls below the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than females in their 20s. Young mothers also have a high risk of suffering from obstetric fistula. Media reports of the 12 year-old Yemeni girl who died from internal bleeding days after marrying a man many years her senior are a grim reminder that girls who have barely reached puberty are far too young to be married and start bearing children.

Child marriage is also linked to the feminization of HIV/AIDS. In Kenya and Zambia, 15- to 19-year-old married girls were found to be 75 percent more likely to have HIV than unmarried girls. In Malawi, adolescent girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection because of the pervasiveness of early marriage. In the 15 to 19 age group, HIV prevalence is more than four times higher for girls than for boys.

The children of teen mothers experience serious health consequences as well. They are twice as likely to die as a child of a woman in her 20s. When they survive, these babies have higher rates of low birth weight, premature birth and infant mortality than those born to older mothers. Infants of teen mothers are also more likely than infants born to older mothers to have poorer health care and inadequate nutrition.

Young brides often lack status and power within their marriages and households, making them more likely to experience domestic violence, marital rape and other sexual abuse, and be isolated from family, friends and community. One study in India found that girls who married before 18 were twice as likely to experience physical violence and three times as likely to experience sexual violence.

Armed conflict can also exacerbate the practice of child marriage by increasing child slavery and trafficking, forced prostitution and sexual exploitation, and child homelessness - all of which conspire toward early marriage or a similarly doomed fate.

The lack of value associated with the girl-child is not only at the root of child marriage—it also underlies comparable abuses. For example, the issue of gendercide and female feticide that is prevalent in China, India and other places contribute to millions of missing girls around the world and is driven by many of the same social, financial and cultural factors that animate the practice of child marriage.

Moral, social justice, and human rights grounds compel the eradication of child marriage. Ending child marriage is also an important component of sustainable development. Child marriage undermines nearly every Millennium Development Goal. It is an obstacle to eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, and improving child and maternal health. And this practice can be eradicated only by addressing many of these broader development issues.

The Way Forward

More must be done to engage governments and civil society globally to focus on prevention, and ultimately the elimination, of child marriage. Community sensitization, grassroots mobilization efforts and engagement with religious leaders are important vehicles for raising awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage and are greatly needed, especially in rural areas. Countries should implement and enforce laws establishing a minimum age for marriage, require the registration of marriages and prosecute the violators.

The development community must also address the conditions in which child marriage flourishes. Beyond working on the development agenda already in place, there must be an effort to increase the value of the girl-child in the eyes of her community. The residents of one village, Dharhara in the Bihar state of India, plant mango trees when a girl is born dedicated to paying for the expenses associated her marriage. This simple practice takes away the financial burden associated with a daughter and has produced outstanding results. In a state that has some of the highest rates of dowry death, there has not been a single incident of female feticide or dowry death in the village.

Experts have identified investing in girls education as the most effective strategy to tackle child marriage. Increased enrollment of girls in school and their access to higher levels of education have translated into improvements in the family’s well-being, reduced infant mortality, and economic advantages for society and overall community. USAID’s extensive basic education program provides one of the surest ways of delaying child marriage by keeping girls in school. In FY 09, more than 23 million girls benefited from USAID programs in primary and secondary education. With an education, a girl’s income potential increases and she is better prepared to contribute to the social, political and economic life of her community. Attempts to close gender gaps in education can include community engagement, the establishment of child-friendly schools, incentives for parents and the expansion of non-formal education opportunities.

Economic empowerment of women and girls is also key to making progress in this area. We know that when a girl provides her family income, she is often protected from early marriage. For example, In Bangladesh, only 31 percent of girls who left rural communities to work in the garment industry were married by 18, whereas 71 percent of girls who stayed at home in these same communities were married by 18.

U.S. Efforts to Eradicate Child Marriage

The U.S. commitment to advancing women and girls encompasses economic, social and political empowerment opportunities and programs to provide girls with access to education, health care, and freedom from violence.

Following a 2005 State Department survey worldwide that found child marriage to be a problem in 64 of 182 countries, embassies are now required to report on child marriage as part of the congressionally mandated annual Human Rights Reports. In addition, U.S. embassies are working on the frontlines to help raise awareness in countries where child marriage is a serious problem.

In recent years, USAID has supported a number of activities at the local, country, and global level that aim to reduce child marriage. The involvement of fathers, mothers, and religious leaders, as well as building girls’ agency through formal education and livelihood training, is crucial to these efforts. Successful programs span a range of sectors, such as health and education, and involve multi-dimensional approaches including community sensitization and mobilization, life-skills education, training religious leaders to address the negative effects of harmful traditional practices.

In Ethiopia, where nearly half of girls are married by age 18, USAID partners have established girls advisory committees to prevent child marriage and encourage both unmarried and married girls to attend classes in the more than 3,700 public schools. The “Healthy Unions” project, carried out with CARE Ethiopia, addresses the interlinked harmful traditional practices of bride abduction, bride price and early marriage by establishing community conversations and raising awareness about the harmful effects of these practices. USAID established 350 Self-Help Savings Groups, in which members pool their financial resources into a fund from which individuals can take loans. By economically empowering women, this program has helped change attitudes to value women for their inherent individuality. In the harsh climate of the rural Afar region of Ethiopia, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) supports a program to increase knowledge about the importance of girl’s education and diminishing harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriages. The project has had a remarkable impact in the target region and led to a 60% reduction in the performance of HTP; a 10% increase in sustained school attendance by female students; and a 30% increase in women’s participation in community dialogue and mobilization efforts.

In India, the Garima, or “dignity” project is a USAID co-funded project working with local health organizations in Rajasthan and New Delhi to strengthen civil society and community groups to advocate for improved implementation of the Prevention of Child Marriage Act and other legislation to improve legal protections for women and girls and enhance the capacity of key justice and health service institutions. Last year, I travelled to New Delhi and participated in the opening ceremony of this project. I was impressed with how it worked. Male members of the Rajasthan community performed a powerful street play that highlighted the negative impact of child sex selection, domestic violence and child marriage. Other programs provide in-school counseling that includes life skills, hygiene and instruction in the benefits of delaying marriage until the legal age.

In Nepal, the U.S. is investing in a project entitled, Chunauti —Nepali for challenge—for a behavioral change communication and social mobilization project to change the practice of child marriage in three districts where it is commonly practiced. Targeting families from poor, vulnerable, and socially excluded communities, it aims to transform community norms that underpin the practice, and advocates for the establishment and enforcement of law and practices that address child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence.

In partnership with USAID, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has also been conducting programs for girls in Africa where child marriage has shown to increase the vulnerability of teenage girls to HIV infection. The “Vulnerable Adolescent Girls Project” in Ethiopia, which receives PEPFAR funding, includes a “Days of Dialogue” component that trains religious leaders to educate their communities on harmful traditional practices such as child marriage as part of the broader HIV/AIDS intervention.

USAID, working with a local organization, has implemented the Extending Service Delivery Project in Yemen that is working to improve community knowledge of the social and health consequences of child marriage, strengthen community support for keeping girls in school as an alternative to child marriage and secure the endorsement of religious leaders and stakeholders to increase the minimum age of marriage. Towards that end, The Yemini Ministry of Religious Affairs has called on religious leaders to publicly address the negative social and health consequences of child marriage in their Friday sermons. In addition, the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is funding a project in Yemen that will establish a network of influential religious leaders, legal specialists, educators, public health professionals and psychologists to publicize the problem of early marriage through health and human rights advocacy and awareness campaigns; promote the passage of marriage age legislation; and provide legal monitoring and protection to victims.


Where child marriage is prevalent, promising strategies for delaying child marriage should be scaled up and expanded. Key government stakeholders have a critical role to play in defining a strategy for combating the practice of child marriage and integrating this within their policy agenda. Human rights-based development and education programs can create dynamics leading to a change in customs, hierarchies and prejudices linked to the tradition of child marriage. Community-level women’s organizations need support to act as effective advocates and educators.

Many girls who have successfully avoided the trap of early marriage have done so by fighting to stay in school, convincing their parents of the benefits of an education. Communities also need to be engaged in the process and understand that society stands to benefit when girls are in school gaining knowledge and skills rather than marrying early.

Greater efforts need to be taken to improve the capacity of families and communities to cope with the change presented by keeping daughters in school. Strategies to gain parental buy-in and the support of village elders and community leaders must be developed and implemented to produce sustainable results. Economic alternatives need to be provided to help to change the circumstances that lead parents to give away their daughters in early marriage. The mindset that allows girls to be treated as having no value must be replaced with a view that recognizes the potential girls represent for their families’, communities’ and countries’ progress and prosperity.