Five Things You May Not Know About Child Marriage

Dec 1, 2013
Originally published on December 4, 2013 10:40 am

NPR's Jennifer Ludden recently traveled to the African nation of Malawi, one of many countries in the developing world where child marriage remains prevalent. She found girls like Christina Asima, who was married at 12 and became a mother at 13. She is now divorced and caring for her infant son on her own. You can read Jennifer's full report here. Below are a few more things she learned while reporting on child marriage.

1. One in 3 girls in the developing world is married by age 18; 1 in 9 by the time she's 15.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that every year, more than 14 million adolescent and teen girls are married, almost always forced into the arrangement by their parents. The countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in sub-Saharan Africa, but those with the largest number of child brides are in South Asia.

2. The number of child brides is increasing.

Suzanne Petroni, of the International Center for Research on Women , says for much of the past half-century, the average age of marriage did increase in most countries, but that's stalled out over the past decade. Now, child marriage is most prevalent in countries with the fastest growing populations. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, U.N. Population Fund reports that births to girls under 15 are projected to nearly double by 2030. Girls Not Brides shows the child marriage rate of each nation in this map, and also links to local groups working to end the practice.

3. In developing countries, the most common cause of death for girls age 15 to 19 is pregnancy and childbirth.

Child brides are almost always married to older men, and lack the standing or skills to negotiate over sex or birth control. That means many get pregnant soon after marriage, when their bodies are too underdeveloped or too small to handle it. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the International Center for Research on Women.

UNICEF finds that the child of a mother under 18 also has a 60-percent greater chance of dying in its first year.

4. Parents often believe that by marrying off a young girl, they are doing what's best for her.

It's true that parents often receive a dowry for marrying off a young daughter. But there are strong links between poverty and child marriage.

In times of drought, when crops fail and families become desperate, rates of child marriage have gone up. In patriarchal cultures, where young girls are often the last ones fed at mealtime, ICRW's Petroni says some parents may feel a daughter's circumstances will improve if she's someone's wife.

In many places, adolescent girls are also at risk of rape, even while walking to school. Parents may offer a daughter's hand in the belief this will help protect her from a sexual assault that could leave her stigmatized in the community and unlikely to be married.

5. Child marriage hurts developing economies.

OK, maybe that's not such a surprise. But the World Bank has calculated the cost of girls dropping out of school — as almost all child brides do — and reducing their future earning power, and the numbers are staggering. It finds billions in lost GDP and productivity for developing nations like India, Brazil and Kenya. And the report notes this does not include the broader social costs when half a nation's population is uneducated.

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NPR's Jennifer Ludden usually covers issues about changing family dynamics here in the U.S., but a recent reporting project took her to Malawi to explore a very different kind of family phenomenon: child marriage. It's an issue that affects young girls around the world. Each year, some 14 million girls are married before the age of 18. Very often, they're forced into the arrangement by their parents.

Child marriage has many serious consequences, including injury - even death - during childbirth. And the number of child brides is growing. This past week, Jennifer Ludden reported on the issue, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. She's with us now, to talk more about her reporting. Hi, Jennifer.


MARTIN: So you recently traveled to southern Africa, to report on child marriage. Tell us what you found there.

LUDDEN: I went to Malawi, where half of all girls are married by the age 18 - a lot of them before they're 15. I met a girl just out of puberty; Christina Asima was her name. I interviewed her as she had her 8-month-old son wrapped to her in this big, blue, print cloth. She was married at age 12. She said she felt she had no choice. Her mother had abandoned the family; her dad was out of the picture. She's left with two younger siblings. And she says, "I needed someone to help me," but it really didn't work out as she thought. Let's listen to her.

CHRISTINA ASIMA: (Through translator) My husband was not treating me very well. He used to spend his nights outside the house. So me, I was alone, I was taking care of myself. If that day I want to eat, it was me alone. Even to feed him, I was the one doing it.

LUDDEN: So here, she thought that a husband would help her raise her siblings; and she was left trying to go out. She said she would have to do farm work for other people, to feed herself and feed her husband. And now, of course, she has this 8-month-old baby.

MARTIN: What happens to girls like Christina in Malawi - and other places where this practice is common?

LUDDEN: Well, amazingly, Christina has actually left her husband. They're divorced. That does not always happen. In many, many cases, when you have a very young girl getting married in what's already a patriarchal society, experts say, you know, they have a life of servitude. There's a very unequal balance of power. They don't feel they can negotiate with their husband over all kinds of issues, you know, including when to have sex. AIDS a very real risk, in these cases. Also, they're open to getting pregnant, whether or not they want to. And that can be devastating.

I was amazed to learn that around the world, the No. 1 cause of death for teenage girls 15 to 19 is pregnancy and childbirth. Now, even if they avoid all those problems, they drop out of school, in most cases. They're ending their education, so they're forgoing whatever higher earning power and standard of living they might have achieved. The United Nations Population Fund last month just came out with a study saying that this is costing these developing economies - India, Brazil, Kenya - billions of dollars every year.

MARTIN: What are the reasons that parents decide to do this, to marry off their daughters so young? I imagine some of this is financial.

LUDDEN: Huge link with poverty, yes. It does vary by region, but a lot of parents may get a dowry for a daughter's hand in marriage. In northern Malawi, there's this practice called kupimbira, which means you can pay down a debt by giving your daughter to a family. Only the daughter - doesn't work with the son. You know, some studies have even cited links with climate change and child marriage. If you have a big drought and the crops fail, those families become desperate; and child marriage rates go up.

I spoke with Suzanne Petroni, of the International Center for Research on Women, here in Washington. She did say, look, in a lot of cases, these parents really do think they're doing what's best for their daughters.

SUZANNE PETRONI: They want economic security for them. And in many cases, they feel that having the girl get married will help her financially. And often in these families, the girls are the last ones to eat. After the men have eaten, the boys have eaten; then the adolescent girls get to eat. So if they're married into a family, their parents tend to think that that's a better situation for them.

LUDDEN: Also, you know, in many places, these girls are very vulnerable to sexual assault, even walking to school. By middle school, they're having - many of them - to walk far away. And some parents may see marriage as way to protect their virginity.

MARTIN: This isn't an issue that's specific to Malawi. How widespread is this problem?

LUDDEN: It is across the developing world. International Center for Research on Women estimates 1 in 3 girls in the developing world marries before 18; 1 in 9 before age 15. A study a few years ago found there's even a few thousand cases of forced child marriage among immigrant communities here in the United States.

MARTIN: NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.


MARTIN: And you are listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.