By Simon Hedlin
“I want to work in business,” says Maria, a 16-year-old girl living in Manhique, a small village in Inhambane Province in southern Mozambique. She wears a confident smile along with a top that says “Girls rock!” Like many teenagers across the world, she wants to go to college and get a stable white-collar job. But in one regard Maria is strikingly different: She is already married.
The prevalence of child marriage, usually defined as when a girl or boy wed or enter a union before their 18th birthday, is globally on the decline. But progress is sluggish—the prevalence rate is falling too slowly to keep up with population growth, which means that the absolute number of child marriages continues to increase. According to the latest edition of UNICEF’s flagship report, “The State of the World’s Children,” released on June 28, currently more than 700 million women were married as children. The figure is projected to jump to nearly 950 million by 2030, unless further advancements are made.
Maria’s fate is similar to that of many child brides. She was told by her husband to drop out of school. Forced to leave her family, she moved to a different village to tend to her husband’s parents, living an isolated life. “I get up at 6 am in the morning, I clean the house, and I also work on the farm, where we grow cassava and peanuts,” she explains.
Apart from social isolation, other well-documented ills of child marriage include low education, poor literary, increased prevalence of partner violence, higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and preservation of gender inequality.
In Mozambique, Maria is far from an outlier. UNICEF reckons that some 48 percent of the country’s girls marry before they turn 18. That puts Mozambique’s child marriage rate at the ninth highest in the world, ahead of India and Nigeria, but behind Chad and Bangladesh. The worst performer is Niger, where more than three in four girls marry as children. As many as 17 out of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence rates are located in sub-Saharan Africa, and they are generally among the world’s poorest.
Unlike poverty or mortality, entering a union as a minor is not necessarily considered a problem by either the public or decision-makers. “We should not be surprised that the child marriage rate often is falling more slowly than child poverty and child mortality rates,” says Claudia Cappa, Statistics Specialist at UNICEF, who has analyzed child marriage data for the organization’s latest report. “When it comes to child marriage, we have to change norms, sometimes against popular religious practices and cultural traditions, which takes a long time.”
Tackling child marriage is hard, but not impossible. Research suggests that setting strict minimum-age laws helps. One recent study analyzed data from 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa; four that had minimum age for marriage consistently set at 18 years or older (such as Rwanda and Ethiopia), and eight that had not (like Mozambique and Tanzania). The authors found that the former group of countries, on average, had 40 percent lower child marriage rates as well as 25 percent lower prevalence of teenage childbearing.
Of course, minimum-age laws are not a panacea; in some countries the problem is a lack of enforcement rather than a lack of laws. It is true that if a marriage is not registered, as often is the case with unions that include children, it is hard for the government to enforce minimum-age laws. Working at a local level is important, too; UNICEF’s efforts already include educating teachers on children’s rights, establishing reporting systems for girls who are abused in school, and working with religious leaders to raise the issue of child marriage in weekly sermons. But legislation is distinct in its ability to substantially impact norms, especially when passed following a national debate and with widespread public support.
Take prostitution laws as an example. Purchasing sex is a practice that is similarly difficult to combat through law enforcement. It takes place in private, which makes it hard for government agencies to intervene. However, some studies have indicated that after Sweden banned the purchase of sexual services in 1999, the prevalence of prostitution has dropped. If this is true, it is highly likely that the reduction is due to a shift in norms—which the increasingly popular law may have contributed to—rather than due to policing.
Based on the notion that laws can help change norms, observers are hopeful about an upcoming vote in the Assembly of the Republic in Mozambique later this year on a new marriage law. The law, which is expected to pass, would raise the national minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18 years.
One reason for the importance of shifting norms is that many parents, as well as children, currently find child marriage appealing. “When I was in the sixth grade, my mother died and I then lived with my grandparents, but they faced a lot of financial trouble to support me,” says Luisa, a 15-year-old girl from the same province as Maria. Like Maria, Luisa married in her mid-teens and moved in with her in-laws, which relieved her family of some financial pressure. Moreover, in many African countries, a form of dowry is typically paid to the bride’s family, which further gives poverty-stricken families an incentive to find their girls a husband.
To help girls like Maria and Luisa, the international community should clearly continue its poverty-alleviation efforts. However, since child marriage is not just an effect of poverty, but also a cause, it is necessary to, in addition, prioritize supporting the passage of national minimum-age marriage laws in high-prevalence countries that lack them.
Yet the problem of child marriages is not an issue merely for developing countries. A 2013 review of child marriage laws found that 23 countries around the world permitted girls to marry without any special requirements, whereas 99 countries—including many in the West—allowed child marriages with parental consent.
Wealthy nations have to both lead by example and use their resources to promote legal reform in other countries. In the United States, some states permit child marriage with parental consent at age 15; New Hampshire even allows unions for girls as young as 13. This has to change. In addition, to have an impact on governments that currently do not take child marriage seriously, major donor countries like Sweden and the United States should consider making a portion of their foreign aid conditional on implementation of minimum-age laws. Some may object to using aid funds to encourage legal reform, but protecting the right of children to not enter marriages before they are old enough to consent is a task too important to pass over a great opportunity for rich countries to help some of the world’s most marginalized individuals.
Girls and boys deserve to be protected from the harms of child marriage. Last year, Luisa had a child with her husband, who is almost twice her age. He currently lives in South Africa where he is working in the mining industry. Their baby will turn one later in September, but she has still not named it. First, Luisa says, she wants her husband to come back to Mozambique. She is still waiting.
The real names of Maria and Luisa have been withheld to protect their identities.
Simon Hedlin is a public policy researcher and a former political adviser at the Swedish Prime Minister’s Office.
[Photo courtesy of Sudan Envoy]