Photo credit: Pippa Ranger - DFID
Child marriage often has devastating consequences on a girl’s health. It encourages the initiation of sexual activity at an age when girls’ bodies are still developing and when they know little about their rights or their sexual and reproductive health.
Neither physically or emotionally ready to give birth, child brides face higher risks of death in childbirth and are particularly vulnerable to pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula.
Once married, girls face intense social pressure to prove their fertility. Often married to older husbands, it can be extremely difficult for girls to assert their wishes, particularly when it comes to negotiating safe sexual practices and the use of family planning methods.
As a result, they are more likely to experience frequent and early pregnancies, which may cause a range of long-term health complications and, in some cases, death.
Preventing child marriage: key to improve maternal health
Research shows that child marriage and adolescent pregnancy are intrinsically linked. 90% of adolescent births in the developing world are to girls who are already married or in an union. In most cases, child marriage is a driver of early pregnancy; in other cases, marriage follows a girl’s often unwanted pregnancy.
When a girl marries as a child, the health of her children suffers too. The children of child brides are at substantially greater risk of perinatal infant mortality and morbidity, and stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher in mothers under the age of 20 than in women who give birth later.
There is little doubt that reducing child marriage will help to improve the health of millions of girls and women, as well as their children’s.
Adolescent girls’ health must be a priority
In spite of this, few health services are tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of child brides, who are hard to reach and are often unaware that services are in place to support them. It is critical for maternal health and family planning programmes to reach adolescent girls, including married girls, and tailor services to their needs.
Health services can also be an entry point to other services, such as formal and informal education, skills-building and income-generating activities, which can provide married girls with life-changing opportunities.