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1. Prevalence of child marriage
2. Geographical breakdown
3. Income breakdown
5. Effects of child marriage
6. Rationalization of child marriage
The practice of child marriage has gradually diminished over the years, but is still widespread in many parts of the world. In the developing world, 36 per cent of women aged 20-24 report that they were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age (source). More than 60% of women were married before they reached the age of 18 in five countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and in Bangladesh. In Niger, which has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, one in three girls is married before the age of 15, and 75 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 are married before age 18. Overall, more than 60 million women aged 20-24 were married or in union before age 18. Every day, 37,000 girls are married before age 18, and often much younger. Each year, 10 million children are forced into marriage. In India, 44,5% of girls are married before the age of 18. 16 other countries do even worse (see below).
And here’s a map showing the geographical distribution of the percentage of women aged 20-24 who were married or in union before age 18 (1987-2006):
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here are some numbers in millions of child brides:
Child marriage is more prevalent among the poorer sections of societies:
In 50 countries, the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females than for men (source). However, it seems that the law can also work the other way and discourage child marriage:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Or perhaps the causation goes the other way: countries where customs discourage early marriage also adopt laws stipulating a high minimum marriage age. In general, we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the power of legislation.
Child marriage is obviously a case of sexual abuse and pedophilia, at least when the husband is an adult – which tends to be the case. Apart from the psychological harm that results from this abuse, there’s often physical harm as well. When girls are having babies before their bodies are mature enough, they are at risk of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.
Another negative effect of early marriage is the exclusion of women from education in favor of domestic work and child rearing. So countries with a high prevalence of child marriages also tend to have low literacy and schooling rates for young women:
Low schooling rates for girls can have a knock-on effect on gender equality in later life. Here’s a ranking of countries by prevalence of child marriage linked to literacy rates:
More on children’s rights.
Child marriage is supposedly necessary or unavoidable in poor societies. It’s a way to deliver the girl from hunger and to ward off famine for the rest of the family. Families sell off their daughters in order to settle debts, assuage disputes and forge communal relationships. Fathers with gambling problems can use their daughters in lieu of money to pay their debts. Among the leading classes, child marriage is also a tool in political manoeuvering.
In many cultures, men want to marry virgins and parents prefer to yield their daughters before misbehavior or abduction has brought the family shame and made any wedding impossible.
The custom of child marriage often occurs in tandem with polygamy. And polygamy is in turn rationalized by way of the claim that poor countries require large families with a lot of female members who can work the land. Since pregnant women, women who have to take care of children or old women can’t work the land as well as young girls, the latter should be allowed to marry.
It goes without saying that none of these rationalizations are acceptable.