The scale of child marriage is huge: according to UNICEF, 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18, and up to 280 million girls are currently at risk of becoming child brides. But if we act to prevent child marriage now, we could dramatically improve the maternal and child health outcomes for millions of girls and women.
As the family planning community convenes in Indonesia for the International Conference on Family Planning (ICPF), we outline 5 reasons why ending child marriage should be a vital part of efforts to improve the health of girls and women worldwide.
1. Child marriage is one of the main drivers of pregnancies during adolescence
Child brides often become mothers at an early age. Soon after marriage, they face pressure from their husband and in-laws, their family and the wider community, to prove their fertility.
In fact, pregnancy during adolescence is intrinsically linked to child marriage: 90% of adolescent pregnancies in the developing world are to girls who are already married.
2. Pregnancy and childbirth put girls’ lives at risk of death or injury
When girls bear children while they are still children themselves, their lives are put at risk. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls aged 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries. Girls who give birth between the ages of 15 and 19 are much more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their early 20s. Those under the age of 15 are at even greater risk.
And when child brides survive childbirth, they remain at risk of health complications. Early pregnancy leaves child brides vulnerable to obstetric fistula, a preventable yet debilitating injury resulting from obstructed labour or prolonged childbirth. 65% of all cases of obstetric fistula occur in girls under the age of 18.
3. Early pregnancies are not only dangerous for girls, they’re dangerous for their children too
The children of child brides are more likely to be stillborn or die within the first week of their life than the chidren of women who give birth later. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher in mothers under the age of 20 than in women who give birth later. Child brides are also more likely to have babies with low weight at birth, with severe long-term effects on their health.
4. Married girls are among the most isolated from, yet the most in need of family planning and maternal health services
Child marriage encourages sexual activity when girls are still developing and know little about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their right to contraception.
Married girls who need access to family planning may face opposition from their husbands or may be unaware that these services even exist. 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.
5. Preventing child marriage can help to reduce maternal mortality
Countries where child marriage is prevalent typically have high rates of maternal mortality. There are strong correlations between maternal mortality and child marriage rates.
When girls have access to sexual and reproductive health services, including sexual education and family planning, they are in a better position to decide if and when to have children.
Health interventions can also have a ripple effect beyond maternal health outcomes by introducing other services, from formal and informal education, activities to build girls' skills and confidence, and opportunities to earn an income.
In the time it has taken to read this article 36 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds