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Don’t demonise: we won’t end child marriage by accusing parents who marry off their daughters

Photo credit: CARE USA

Recent events in Yemen, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia have sparked worldwide outrage about child marriage. The blogosphere is flooded with passionate diatribes against the practice, emphasising the negative educational, economic and health consequences that result from early marriage. There is more global attention to the issue than ever, including a recent UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for stronger action to stop child marriage.

However, we know more needs to be done, especially given the dire statistics and consequences of early marriage. The more than 60 million girls married under the age of 18 in the world have higher risk of death during childbirth, fewer marketable skills, lower lifetime income, and higher rates of HIV, domestic violence, and illness for themselves and their families than their unwed peers.

Focusing on reasons that families practice child marriage opens up a range of possibilities to stop it

Given these facts, many people struggle to understand the climate in which child marriage exists. As we discuss the grave consequences of child marriage, very little is said about the reasons behind the practice. The little coverage of drivers that exists tends to blame men and families, and demonise the cultural norms in other parts of the world.

Ignoring the causes of child marriage, or attacking the entire value system of people who practice it leaves us with few solutions to the problem. Families practicing child marriage are not “evil,” sending their children away because they don’t care. Rather, they are operating within a system in which these early marriages are meant to protect the daughters they hold dear. Focusing on reasons that families practice child marriage opens up a range of possibilities to stop it.

Helping families to realise that child marriage may not be the solution to their financial hardship

One driving force of child marriage is poverty. In Bangladesh, 62% of individuals cite financial problems as a driver of early marriage.[1] Girls are seen as an economic drain on the family, a burden that concludes with the substantial sum given to the groom as dowry. This payment rises with the girl’s age, incentivising parents to marry their daughters young. For some families, marriage is a solution borne of desperation, a way to minimise the burden of dowry while alleviating household expenses.

Initiatives like CARE’s “Chunauti” program in Nepal work with families and communities to highlight the cost of child marriage. For each additional year of primary school, a girl can expect her future earnings to increase by 10-20%. An extra year of secondary school can boost wages by an even further 15-25%.[2]

Girls’ education benefits the next generation as well.  Children born to educated mothers are 40% less likely to die before the age of 5, are more likely to be immunised, and have a greater chance of attending school and being literate than those born to uneducated women. Factoring these costs into the dowry calculation helps families realise that child marriage may not be the solution they thought it was.

Empowering both men and women to speak out against oppressive norms is the first step in creating safe and encouraging environments for girls

Another force behind early marriage is the desire to protect young girls from sexual harassment, abuse, and unintended pregnancy. Schools and other community centers can be seen as an unsafe and inappropriate place for a single young girl to be present. Betrothal is seen as a way to protect a girl’s purity by legitimizing her sexuality and providing her with the protection of a husband.

Unfortunately these marriages often link girls to much older men, increasing their lifetime risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as burdening them with the high health risks inherent in early pregnancy. Empowering both men and women to speak out against oppressive norms is the first step in creating safe and encouraging environments for girls to pursue educational and economic opportunities.

Investing in girls’ education is one important tool in reducing the number of marriages among youth. Programming needs a comprehensive approach in order to address the host of issues affecting a family’s decision to wed their girl child.  CARE is working in partnership with communities in Bangladesh and Nepal to explore these issues further, linking with local leaders to reduce the prevalence and lessen the harmful impacts of child marriage through advocacy, engagement, and empowerment programs.

Let’s acknowledge our shared motivations: the well-being of families and children throughout the world

Child marriage is a tragedy that restricts the lives and livelihoods of millions of girls each year. It is time we engage in a global conversation about the issue, but let us not approach the table brandishing blame and shouts of injustice. Instead, let us begin by acknowledging our shared motivations – the well being of families and children throughout the world. Only then can we begin tackling the roots of child marriage, and together we can help the daughters of the world.


[2] (George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, “Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update,” Policy Research Working Paper 2881[Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002].)