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Child Marriage Remains Prevalent Worldwide

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In India, girls as young as 12 are forced into arranged marriages, placing them at risk of domestic abuse and limiting their future potential.
In India, girls as young as 12 are forced into arranged marriages, placing them at risk of domestic abuse and limiting their future potential.

Forced marriages are commonplace in many cultures around the world, a practice that keeps girls and young women from reaching their potential. ChildFund works in many countries in which girls are forced into marriage, including India. Many countries — including India, which prohibits the marriage of a girl under 18 — outlaw the practice of child marriage, but according to recent data from the Council on Foreign Relations, many girls and young women are nonetheless being coerced into marriage around the world.

Perpetuating Poverty

Girls who are forced to marry young are often denied educational and job training opportunities. This, in turn, limits their future earning potential and perpetuates the cycle of generational poverty and gender inequality. In addition, many child poverty experts agree that child marriage causes lasting physical, emotional and psychological damage. Some girls become mothers before they're mature enough to handle such responsibilities, and they are far more likely to die in childbirth than adult women.

The CFR reports that approximately 142 million girls under the age of 18 will marry, whether willingly or otherwise, within this decade, but it is difficult to confirm an exact estimate. Although the practice of child marriage transcends geographical and cultural boundaries, it is more common in some countries than others. In both South Asia and West and Central Africa, roughly two out of five girls are married as children. However, India currently accounts for the greatest proportion of child marriages worldwide, with more than 10 million girls under 18 married, despite the law against it.

Girls at Risk

Child marriage is a complex cultural and social problem with many factors. However, certain commonalities have been observed in countries in which child marriages are prevalent.

The CFR report reveals that girls from rural communities are twice as likely to be child brides as those from urban areas. In addition, girls forced into marriage more commonly come from low-income families. In Guatemala, girls in indigenous Mayan communities are more likely to be married early.

In some cultures, girls are seen as an economic burden on a family due their their perceived limited earning potential. Some families choose to offer their daughters as brides to avoid the financial burden of providing them with an education, or out of economic desperation. Similarly, the dowries of child brides are often closely connected to the age of the bride, with younger girls viewed as more valuable than those who are older. The CFR reports that this practice is particularly common in many sub-Saharan African nations.

Data from the World Bank suggests that, in addition to limiting girls' future earning potential, child marriage often places them at greater risk of domestic violence. Child brides are frequently forced to marry older men, some of whom have multiple wives; attitudes toward this type of abuse remain culturally accepted in some communities.

Crucial Interventions

Combating the problem of child marriage is a considerable challenge. ChildFund works in some countries in which the practice is common, and many girls need assistance.

"I hate early marriage," says Meseria, a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl. "Small girls are forced to get married as early as age 12 and 13, when we still don't know anything about life. Our families get us married to someone who is four or five times our age, someone who could be our father. Imagine the fear."

ChildFund works with local partner organizations and governments to expand access to information about the harm that child marriage can do. Meseria's parents learned about the dangers of the practice through a training session held in partnership with ChildFund and decided that Meseria's education was more important than the potential financial gains of pledging her to an older man as a child bride.

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