The number of child marriages across the world has gradually declined over the past 30 years, driven down by growing economic and educational opportunities for women.
The global child marriage rate dropped from 33 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. If the current pace of progress is maintained, UNICEF predicts, the child marriage rate will drop to 22 percent by 2030 and 18 percent by 2050.
But while progress remains steady, UNICEF says the current rate of decline is barely fast enough to keep pace with population growth. It estimates that in 2050, about 700 million women will have married under the age of 18 – the same number as today.
And if momentum slows down? The total number of child brides could grow to 1.2 billion by mid-century. One of the biggest concerns is sub-Sahara Africa’s population boom, which threatens to reverse the incremental progress made in recent decades, according to the UN Population Fund.
“While it is certainly true that the age of marriage is going up, the pace of change is just far too slow,” said Rachel Vogelstein, a fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “The numbers are grave enough that I would be hesitant to characterize the progress that has been made as a big success story and instead point to the need to really accelerate the pace of change.”
Ann Warner, a gender and youth specialist at the International Center for Research on Women, says the socioeconomic consequences of child marriage are long-lasting and profound. Girls who marry young are often left without the skills, education, and social networks needed to financially support their households and escape intergenerational poverty.
The health effects can be even worse. Early marriage makes girls more vulnerable to HIV in countries with high infection rates. Meanwhile, pregnancy complications are a leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
“The consequences of child marriage don’t stop at the girl herself,” Ms. Warner says. “They affect her family. They lead to chronic poverty at the community level and into the next generation.”
Both Warner and Ms. Vogelstein say the root cause of child marriage is gender inequality. They contend that reducing the gender gap by expanding access to economic and educational opportunities to girls is paramount for future progress.
“If girls and women are not free to choose if, when, and whom they marry – which is such a fundamental right – then they can’t be fully empowered and they can’t be on an equal basis with their male counterparts,” Warner says.
A woman’s education level is a key indicator of when she’ll marry. So too is her economic status. In India, the median age at first marriage is 15.4 for the poorest women, compared with 19.7 for women in the wealthiest 25 percent. Across the world, girls from rural communities – where economic and educational opportunities are often scarce – are twice as likely to marry as girls from cities.
Although 33 percent of all child marriages take place in India, South Asia and West and Central Africa have the highest prevalence rates. In those regions, an estimated two out of five girls are married as children. In Niger, 77 percent of 18- to 49-year-old women were married during childhood, the highest rate in the world.
But many parts of the world have seen progress. The percentage of child brides dropped by about half in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 30 years. South Asia has seen a similar decline in the number of marriages involving girls under 15 years old, but the marriage of girls under 18 remains common.
According to Girls Not Brides, a global consortium of civil society organizations, child marriage gained unprecedented attention in 2014, with a record number of governments making commitments to address the issue. Countries from Mozambique to Pakistan have embraced new initiatives to curb the practice – from informational campaigns to educational programs.
One of the biggest achievements came in mid-November, when the United Nations adopted a resolution that calls for every country to create laws banning child marriage. Co-sponsored by 116 countries, the resolution marks the first time UN has agreed upon substantive recommendations for addressing the issue.
“The passage of a UN resolution does not mean that we will end child marriage tomorrow, but resolutions are important in setting global norms,” Heather Hamilton, global coordinator for Girls Not Brides, said in a statement. “This is a firm statement from the international community that we have to act on child marriage if we’re to ensure equality and reduce global poverty.”
Vogelstein argues that the real test will come when the UN finalizes its post-2015 development agenda at the end of next year. It remains to be seen how prominently child marriage will feature in it.
“We need more than resolutions,” she says. “We need implementation. We need political will. We need sufficient resources.”