Despite significant progress, we need to go 20 times faster to end child marriage by 2030, shows new data
This week’s launch of UNICEF data on child marriage demonstrates that progress is possible, with countries from a variety of settings sharing common threads including improvements in economic development, poverty reduction, access to employment – and educational attainment at the secondary level for girls. Each region in the world has a positive example of acceleration that we can learn from.
Globally, the practice of Child Marriage continues to decline. Today, 1 in 5 women aged 20-24 (19%) were married as children, compared to 1 in 4 (23%), about ten years ago. Around 68 million cases have been avoided in the last 25 years.
The Global progress has largely been driven by declines in India, though this country alone still accounts for one third of the world’s child brides, a share equal to the next 10 countries combined. Despite these global advances, the progress remains uneven. Variations within a country can be significant, for example prevalence reaches as high as 90% in countries in the Sahelian belt that are impacted by climate crisis and conflict. And the data around the world shows that progress is linked to socio-economic status meaning that equitable and inclusive economic growth is foundational to accelerate progress.
It is estimated that it may take another 300 years at the current rate to eliminate child marriage.
It is estimated 640 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood. South Asia continues to bear the greatest burden of child brides (45 per cent), followed by sub-Saharan Africa* (20 per cent), East Asia and the Pacific (15 per cent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (9 per cent).
Progress by region
South Asia, led by India, has made significant progress in reducing child marriage, with a 20% decrease in the last decade, but the region still has the largest number of child brides. This is partially due to India's massive population, but also despite rapid economic growth some 1 in 5 people in India still live in poverty. Girls’ options for their adult lives are still shaped by discrimination which means inequitable access to education and other opportunities, intense social pressure to marry and have children, and norms and laws that inhibit and criminalise consensual sex between adolescents. In the last decade, the likelihood of a girl marrying in childhood has dropped by almost half, from 46% to 26%. This progress is largely driven by India, but other countries such as Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan have also seen notable declines in child marriage. Data shows progress has primarily benefitted girls from richer families. In only two regions of the world - South Asia and Middle East and North Africa - has there been progress for girls from the poorest and the richest families. In all other regions and globally prevalence has increased or stagnated for girls from the poorest families between 1997 and 2022. If progress had been as fast globally as it has been among the richest quintile in South Asia, only 9% of girls today would be child brides, compared to the current 19%.
Girls in sub-Saharan Africa* face the highest risk of child marriage in the world, with 1 in 3 marrying before age 18, and the practice is more concentrated in West and Central Africa. At the current pace, it would take West and Central Africa over 200 years to eliminate child marriage. However, if the region accelerated progress to the pace seen in the Gambia, an end to child marriage would be in sight in less than half that time. The report notes that the population in sub-Saharan Africa* is projected to double by 2050, which has important implications for girls in the future, as child marriage is more common in parts of the world that are growing rapidly and most impact by the climate crisis and conflict, compared with areas where child marriage is rare. The paper recommends targeted interventions and investment to create the alternatives that are needed to child marriage, including employment opportunities for women. quality secondary education for girls, inclusive economic growth and transformation of attitudes and norms that stand in the way of fulfilment of girls' inalienable universal right to participate and benefit equitably from progress.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 1 in 6 young women are married before age 18. This means that a significant number of girls are forced to marry at a very young age, which can have negative consequences for their health, education, and overall well-being. But most countries in this region have made progress in reducing child marriage over the last 25 years, with Egypt leading in reductions in child marriage among the poorest. However, Iraq still has persistently high levels of child marriage, which is a cause for concern. Despite this, the progress that has been made in reducing child marriage in the region has been more equitable than in other regions. This means that efforts to reduce child marriage have been more successful in reaching the poorest girls in the region, who are often the most at risk.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Child marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it often takes the form of informal unions, has not shown progress in the last 25 years and is expected to become second to sub-Saharan Africa* in terms of prevalence by 2030. This means that if current trends continue, Latin America and the Caribbean will have the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa*. Wealth disparities persist, with early unions being rare among wealthier segments of society. While early unions are rare among wealthier segments of society, they are resistant to change among the poorest. This means that while child marriage is less common among wealthier families, it is still a problem for the poorest families, and efforts to reduce child marriage have not been successful in these communities.
What’s new, and of concern? Data exposes "polycrisis" of conflict, covid and climate
But gains made can be quickly lost, especially by what UNICEF refers to as "polycrisis". The term "polycrisis" describes the overlapping crises facing the world today – for child marriage these are conflict, COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. These crises have contributed to a more precarious world in which families seek "refuge" for their girls in child marriage.
In 2022 an estimated 12 million girls became child brides – and at the current pace of progress, over 9 million girls will still marry by the year 2030, with a growing share in sub-Saharan Africa*.
When conflict intensifies tenfold, child marriage increases by 7 per cent.
Prevalence of child Marriage is in fragile states is twice the global average. Factors such as insecurity, fear of sexual violence, financial hardship and interruptions to girls' schooling all contribute to the increase of child marriage in conflict settings. this issue by increasing the likelihood that families will see marriage as a way to protect their daughters or alleviate economic hardship. When girls are forced to drop out of school, they may lose the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge needed to secure a better future, putting them at further risk of child marriage.
For each year of conflict, progress towards eliminating child marriage would be set back by four years. Evidence shows that families may perceive child marriage as a "protective" measure for their daughters despite it being a violation of children's rights. This is because child marriage is often seen as a way to provide financial, social, or physical protection for girls. For example, families may believe that marriage will protect their daughters from sexual violence or provide them with economic security. However, evidence demonstrates that child marriage is not an effective or appropriate way to protect girls, and that it can have serious negative consequences for their health, education, and well-being. Both the evidence and data highlight the urgent need to address child marriage in conflict and crisis settings.
Climate crisis: The report provides evidence that extreme weather events are correlated with an increased risk of child marriage. It also highlights the impact of drought conditions and conflict on progress towards eliminating child marriage.
In a year with an extreme weather event, there is an 18% increase in the prevalence of child marriage, which is equivalent to erasing five years of progress. The paper highlights the need to address the impact of climate change on child marriage and to take measures to protect populations most at risk. And a 10 per cent change in rainfall due to climate change is associated with a 1 per cent increase in the prevalence of child marriage.
Drought conditions in a country could exacerbate risks for girls and increase the likelihood of child marriage. However, the true magnitude of the impact will be seen when conditions allow for safe data collection in the coming years. The report highlights the need to address the impact of drought on child marriage and to take measures to protect vulnerable populations.
Climate change can exacerbate conditions of vulnerability for girls at risk of child marriage in several ways, particularly through extreme weather events like droughts or floods. These events can lead to crop failure, food insecurity, and economic hardship, which can increase the likelihood that families will see marriage as a way to protect their daughters or alleviate financial strain. Additionally, extreme weather events can disrupt education and healthcare systems, making it more difficult for girls to access the resources and support they need to avoid child marriage. Finally, displacement caused by climate change can also increase the risk of child marriage, as families may see marriage as a way to protect their daughters in unfamiliar or unstable environments.
COVID-19 pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic cut the estimated number of averted cases of child marriage since 2020 by one quarter, with an estimated 10 million cases of child marriage due to the pandemic, mostly with school closures and income shocks.
Looking to the future - what can we do?
Progress towards eliminating child marriage needs to be 20 times faster to reach the SDG target, the report highlights.
There is progress, yes, but child marriage remains a complex issue that is influenced by a range of factors, including discriminatory gender and social norms, poverty, access to quality education, SRHR services and employment opportunities.
We need to double down on efforts and scale to reach the most marginalized girls, including those who are already married. The data shows that, across all regions, efforts have primarily benefitted girls from richer backgrounds - girls from the richest households represent three times as many averted cases of child marriage as girls from the poorest households. To end child marriage all girls need to benefit from progress.
There is a call for safe data collection and statistical modelling to accurately measure the prevalence of child marriage in the absence of complete data. Future research should focus on developing effective interventions to prevent child marriage in the context of extreme weather events, conflict, and drought conditions. Policymakers and practitioners need to take into account the impact of extreme weather events, conflict, and drought conditions on child marriage.
We need to learn from what we have done well, and take these elements further to work at scale. Multifaceted approaches that address the root causes of child marriage are key and gender transformative approaches are central to this response – for example, labour market policies encouraging decent work for women, the provision of quality, viable secondary education options for girls, support to girls that already married to access services, and a continuing challenge to harmful gender norms and unequal power relation.
In the time it has taken to read this article 114 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 2 seconds
About the author
Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage
- United Nations Children’s Fund, Is an End to Child Marriage within Reach? Latest trends and future prospects. 2023 update, UNICEF, New York, 2023
- *Girls Not Brides generally avoids the term “sub-Saharan Africa” due to its racial and colonial connotations, and lack of specificity. We have used it here to reflect the available data and evidence, which refers to sub-Saharan Africa as a geographical region.
About child marriage
Child marriage is a global issue. It is fuelled by gender inequality, poverty, social norms and insecurity, and has devastating consequences all over the world. Here, you can discover more…
SDGs and Child Marriage
Unless we end child marriage, we won't reach 8 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Child marriage and gender
Information and resources on the two-way link between child marriage and gender equality. Also learning, tools and evidence on what works to transform the power dynamics that drive child marriage.