More than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020 if current rates of early marriage continue, according to the UN.
Of that number of girls aged under 18, 50 million will be younger than 15, says the UN Population Fund, which co-hosted a panel on child marriage at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) on Thursday.
Although rates of child marriage vary between and within countries, most take place in rural sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.
In south Asia, nearly half of young women are married by their 18th birthday. In sub-Saharan Africa the figure is more than one third.
Nine of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa. Niger has the highest rate at 75 percent, followed by Chad and Central African Republic at 68 percent, Guinea at 63 percent, Mozambique at 56 percent, Mali with 55 percent, Burkina Faso and South Sudan with 52 percent and Malawi at 50 percent. The 10th country is Bangladesh, with 66 percent.
Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, has called child marriage a violation of girls’ human rights, as it halts education, increases health risks through early pregnancy and motherhood and increases the chances of girls being the victims of sexual violence in the home.
The inclusion of child marriage in the CSW outcome agreement on eliminating violence against women and girls is now being debated.
On Thursday, the World Young Women’s Christian Association presented a petition to CSW urging the conference to commit to ending child marriage by 2030, and make the issue an indicator in any future development goals.
However, there are significant barriers to achieving this in many countries, particularly poor countries, which have less resources to keep girls in school and which see early marriage as a traditional, accepted practice.
To address the issue in Malawi, the government is in the process of pushing through legislation to raise the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, which it hopes will be in place by 2014. It is also attempting to get, and keep, more girls in primary and secondary school.
The issue is viewed as a major health challenge and is a key part of the country’s wider efforts to cut maternal mortality rates. At the moment, Malawi’s maternal mortality rate is 675 for every 100,000 live births a year. The Malawi health minister, Catherine Gotani Hara, said a recent national health survey revealed that most of those women who died were between the ages of 15 and 19.
“Our biggest worry is that where women are getting married early, it is causing a lot of maternal deaths,” she said in an interview. “We have one of the highest rates in the world. President Banda says this is something we don’t want to see. Birth should not be a death sentence to women ... we need to end early marriage. It has a serious effect on social and health aspects.”
According to the UN, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in poorer countries. Stillbirths and deaths of newborn babies are 50 percent higher among mothers under the age of 20 than among women who get pregnant in their 20s.
Efforts to address child marriage have been on the cards in Malawi for a number of years, but under the presidency of Joyce Banda, the issue has become more pressing. The issue has been included in the government’s Safe Motherhood initiative.
Part of that initiative is to involve local tribal chiefs, working with them to encourage their communities to send their children to school, especially girls, and to dispel the idea that marrying off girls early will bring blessings to the family.
The issue of funding a child’s studies past primary school, though, remains a challenge. Hara said the president herself currently funds a number of girls through school and is encouraging her ministers to do the same. Hara said the country does not have the money to fund free secondary schooling.
“She [Banda] is encouraging women ministers to identify girls to support, girls in our constituency in challenging situations,” she said. “At the moment, there are no resources to make secondary education free, as there are so many challenges.”
Hara said that giving girls four more years in school would have a positive impact on the rates of child marriage.
Poverty, however, is a major driver of child marriage. Poor families marry off their daughters young, as it will mean one less mouth to feed, and the prospect of receiving a “bride price” — money or livestock in exchange for a daughter’s hand in marriage — is particularly tempting in difficult times.
“It all boils down to poverty ... young girls are being married off before puberty. Someone will come in and give a father a cow for a girl when they are eight or nine years old and when they reach puberty they will give another cow,” Hara said.