What Perpetuates Child Marriage?

Evidence for what drives child marriage is growing. Despite diversity across regions and communities, many common threads lead to child marriage and its harmful consequences. Human Rights Watch research in Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Yemen has found that intersections between gender discrimination and poverty; poor access to education and health services; customary practices; religious beliefs; and weak justice mechanisms fuel the practice.


Pontinanta J. from South Sudan has nine siblings and neither of her parents is employed. She told Human Rights Watch that she was married in 2006 at the age of 13 because “my father did not want to pay my school fees. Sometimes we had no food at home.”[6] Aguet N., married at age 15 to a 75-year-old man said, “This man went to my uncles and paid a dowry of 80 cows. I resisted the marriage. They threatened me. They said, ‘If you want your siblings to be taken care of, you will marry this man.’ I said he is too old for me. They said, ‘You will marry this old man whether you like it or not because he has given us something to eat.’”

Poverty is commonly cited by girls and family members as driving decisions to marry young. For poor families, with little money even for food and basic necessities, marrying their daughter early is an economic survival strategy: it means one less child to feed or educate. Girls themselves may see marriage as a way out of poverty. Discriminatory gender norms in many places, including traditions that mean girls go to live with their husbands’ families, while boys remain with, and financially support, their parents, also contribute to perceptions that girls are economic burdens. Some families believe that giving their daughter away in marriage may give her a chance for a better life.

Customary Practices and Religious Beliefs

Traditional beliefs about gender roles and sexuality and women and girls’ subordination undergird many customary practices, such as payment of dowry or bride price, which perpetuate child marriage. In a context of limited economic resources and opportuni­ties, girls are often seen as economic assets whose marriages provide cattle, other animals, money, and gifts.

For example, dowry payment is a key driver of child marriage in South Sudan, where families see their daughters as sources of wealth. A marriage is sealed after a man and his family negotiates and pays a dowry to a woman’s family in the form of cattle, other animals, or, increasingly, money. Anita G., 19, told Human Rights Watch that her father forced her to leave school to get married when she was 16 and in her second year of secondary school: “My father said he did not have money to support my schooling. I then discovered that he had already received 20 cows as dowry for me. My mother tried to reason with my father to allow me continue with school, but my father said I had to marry. He said, ‘Once dowry has been taken, it cannot be returned.’”

Religious beliefs can also be a driver of child marriage. Amongst Zimbabwe’s religious sects, particularly in the Apostolic faith where religion combines with traditional culture, girls often marry much older men at a very young age. A midwife in the Johwane Masowe Shonhiwa Apostolic faith told Human Rights Watch her church encourages child marriage: “Our church doctrine is that girls must marry when they are between 12 and 16 years old to make sure they do not sin by having sexual relations outside marriage. As soon as a girl reaches puberty any man in the church can claim her for a wife.”[13] Virginity testing and polygamy is also widely practiced within the Apostolic faith religious sects. Church doctrine enforced by elders, husbands, and other family members, prohibits married girls from continuing school.


Devastating Consequences

Human Rights Watch research has shown that child marriage has dire life-long consequences, often completely halting or crippling a girl’s ability to realize a wide range of human rights.

Child marriage directly violates rights to health, education, equality and non-discrimination, consensual marriage, employment, and to live free from violence and discrimination, which are enshrined in international human rights standards and institutions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Child marriage also violates the rights of women and girls that are enshrined in regional treaties. These include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), which calls on governments to “enact appropriate national legislative measures to guarantee that: the minimum age of marriage for women shall be 18 years”; and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter), which calls on states to “ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of women and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.”[14]

Maternal Mortality and Other Health Risks

I got complications during delivery. I was unable to push and I was weak with no energy. The nurses said I was getting complications because my body was not fully developed. To pull out the baby, the nurses forced their hands inside my body and pulled the baby out. I felt so much pain that I was not able to walk for a whole month after delivery.[15]

—Aisha S., married at 17, Kahama, Tanzania, April 2014

Child marriage is closely linked to early childbearing with consequences that can be fatal. Complications resulting from pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15-19 years old globally.[16] Research shows that girls aged 10-14 are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers aged 20-24; girls aged 15-19 are still twice as likely to die during delivery as women aged 20-24.[17]

These consequences are due largely to girls’ physical immaturity where the pelvis and birth canal are not fully developed. Complications in labor are exacerbated where emergency obstetric services are scarce, as is the case in many countries across the continent. In other cases, the stress of delivery in physically immature bodies can cause obstetric fistulas, a tear between a girl’s vagina and rectum that results in constant leaking of urine and feces. Girls suffering this condition are often ostracized and abandoned by their families and communities.

Limited access to reproductive health information and services for both unmarried and married adolescents contributes to these harms. Many adolescents have a limited understanding of sexual intercourse, its consequences, or contraception. Adolescent pregnancy outside of marriage, or the fear that adolescent girls will get pregnant, helps fuel child marriage. Once married, girls often do not have access to information or family planning services to delay or space pregnancies.

Many girls that Human Rights Watch interviewed in South Sudan lacked basic knowledge about sexuality and contraception. Gloria C. said she got pregnant at 14 or 15. “I didn’t know that I would get pregnant by having sex,” she said. “I was just playing sex.”[18] A problem in many countries is that many schools do not offer comprehensive sexuality education to girls and boys, or health workers do not share complete information about reproductive health with adolescents.

-Human rights watch

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