Every year, 15 million girls are locked away from a better life.
The ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda serves to create progress that will improve lives across the world. But every year, 15 million girls are locked away from a better life.1 Child marriage is standing in the way of progress towards many of the 2030 Global Goals. For as long as child marriage continues to exist, so will poverty and instability, violence against women and girls, high global maternal mortality rates, and an ever-widening educational gap between the poorest and wealthiest nations.
1. Child marriage traps girls and their families in a cycle of poverty
SDG1: No Poverty and SDG2: No Hunger
Women who are employed reinvest 90% of their earnings back into their families2, lifting themselves, their children, their siblings and relatives out of poverty. But when a girl is married as a child, this can often mean the end of her education, and her ability to become financially independent. One girl’s potential to lift an entire family, and even a community, out of poverty disappears. This is happening millions of times over. As the inter-generational cycle of poverty continues, youth unemployment and economic instability can lead to migration, conflict and violence.
2. Child marriage is linked to high global rates of maternal mortality
SDG3: Good Health
When girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready, they are at high risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, which endanger the life of both mother and child.3 Teenage birth rates are highest where child marriage is most prevalent.4 In fact, the risk of maternal mortality is highest for adolescent girls under 15 years old, and complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries5, leaving behind vulnerable orphaned children. As well as increased vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence6, survivors of the trauma of premature childbirth are at risk of long term and debilitating health complications, such as obstetric fistula, compromising their ability to work or return to school, while further stretching under-resourced health systems.
3. Child brides are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS
SDG3: Good Health
Adolescent girls are disproportionately affected by HIV.7 Girls who are married as adolescents to men who have had many previous sexual partners are even more likely to contract HIV due to a lack of sexual and reproductive health information, and a lack power to negotiate safe sex or refuse sex. Often they are subject to partner violence, which further increases their risk of contracting HIV.8 The tragedy of HIV/AIDS for girls comes full circle as AIDS is a leading cause of death amongst adults. Orphans and girls from child-headed households are at higher risk of early marriage as they struggle to support themselves. In these desperate situations, when a girl cannot afford food or shelter, let alone school fees, entering into an early marriage can sometimes be seen as the only way to survive.
4. Child marriage is a major barrier to achieving gender equality
SDG5: Gender Equality
Girls who are married as children are more likely to experience domestic violence, and have a lower status in society, because too often child brides are denied their right to pursue education, employment or entrepreneurial opportunities.
With every child bride we lose a future teacher, doctor, scientist, entrepreneur or political leader. The cost to all of us is tremendous, and we pay the price in the form of inefficient accumulation of capital and slower economic growth, amounting to trillions of dollars for developing countries by 2030.9
5. Child marriage locks away women’s enormous potential to help solve global problems
SDG1: No Poverty SDG2: Zero Hunger SDG3: Good Health SDG4: Quality Education SDG13: Climate Action
The potential of so many girls to change the course of our planet’s future remains our world’s greatest untapped resource. For example, women in rural areas are often in charge of agricultural operations, and so they are best placed to implement sustainable agricultural, energy and environmental initiatives in their communities, which can help to address poverty and hunger, and in turn health and education, as well as increase resilience to climate change. A recent study suggests that a clear link has been established between girls’ education and the mitigation of climate change10, one reason being that educated women have smaller, healthier families, and in turn educate their children, leading to a virtuous cycle of development.
However, when girls are excluded from education and locked away in an early marriage, they are often unable to gain the knowledge or earn the respect and decision-making power that they need to lead change in their communities.
Mary (not her real name), 15, was a child bride. Now she is a widow and single mother. (Photo: Eliza Powell/CAMFED)
The Sustainable Development Goals are underpinned by investment in girls’ education and gender equality.11 When a girl is excluded from education she is invisible and powerless. The educated young women leading our movement understand this powerlessness. They were once invisible. Now they know that inclusion is power. They’ve joined a powerful peer support and leadership network called the CAMFED Association.
Many of them were once themselves destined to be child brides, so they understand what it takes to help girls escape this poverty trap. CAMFED Association members identify girls in their communities who are vulnerable to early marriage and work with families and local authorities to ensure girls receive the support they need to stay in school, succeed and lead.