Four things you need to know: child marriage and HIV

Woman holding an AIDS awareness campaign, South Africa | Photo credit: World Bank

Here are four important facts you need to know on the links between child marriage and HIV.

1. Adolescent girls are disproportionately affected by child marriage and HIV

Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. Although boys are sometimes married off, child marriage is driven by gender inequality and disproportionately affects girls.

Young women and girls are also disproportionately affected by the spread of HIV. Globally, young women and girls are twice as likely to acquire HIV as young men and boys.

This is all the more worrying because AIDS-related illnesses are teh second leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 in sub-Saharan Africa and the third most common cause of death among adolescents globally.

2. Child brides are particularly vulnerable to becoming infected with HIV

Child brides are particularly vulnerable to HIV. This is for a number of reasons:

  • In many contexts, early sexual debut – including that which takes place within child marriages – is associated with increased lifetime risk of HIV infection.
  • Child brides are exposed to frequent unprotected sexual activity, in part because there is pressure on them to prove their fertility.
  • Child brides have little say in how they practice their sexuality, because of their young age and limited power in the relationship, leaving them unable to negotiate safer sex or refuse sex.
  • Child brides are more likely to contract HIV over their lifetime, as their husbands have often had sexual partners before them.
  • They are also more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, a factor that has been shown to increase the likelihood of contracting HIV.
  • Girls generally are less well informed than boys about HIV and how to protect themselves.
  • Girls married before the age of 18 tend to have lower levels of education than their unmarried peers, which further increases their risk of contracting HIV.

3. Child brides are often unable to access HIV information and programmes

Though child brides desperately need sexual health information and services, they are often isolated – both geographically and socially –and unable to access them. Once married, girls are often taken out of schools where they would have had better access to programmes related to sexual health.

Child brides are also often unaware that such information and services are available to them, making it significantly harder to effectively prevent and treat HIV among them.

4. To tackle the spread of HIV, we must prioritise girls at risk of child marriage and married girls

We know that child marriage can increase girls’ likelihood of contracting HIV, and that child brides often struggle to access the information and services they need to prevent or treat HIV.

As long as we ignore the specific needs of child brides girls and those at risk of child marriage, HIV programmes will fail to effectively curb the epidemic.

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