Four facts 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, 15 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. Of all new HIV infections among young people age 10-24, approximately 2 out of 3 are girls and young women.

This is all the more worrying because AIDS is now the leading cause of death among adolescents (10-19) in Africa, and the second most common cause of death among adolescents globally.  

2. Child marriage makes girls more vulnerable to becoming infected with HIV

Married adolescent girls tend to have higher HIV infection rates than their unmarried, sexually active peers. This is due to a number of reasons:

  • 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.

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 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 increases 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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