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New research on child marriage in 2016: what did we learn?

Members from Turkey and India in discussion at a workshop organised by Girls Not Brides in February 2015. | Photo credit: Girls Not Brides

2016 was a big year for research on child marriage. New data and analysis emerged, building our understanding of child marriage, its drivers and impact, as well as what it will take to end it. Here, we look back on what we learned.

1. Child marriage remains a global issue

“Where does child marriage happen most?” It’s the first question we get asked working on this issue. In 2016, new data by UNICEF revealed that child marriage happens in places less frequently talked about. Some of the countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriage include some “unusual suspects”: Brazil and Mexico in South America; Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand in Southeast Asia, and Iran.

We learned that child marriage rates have increased in humanitarian crises yet continue to be inadequately addressed. Research from the Women’s Refugee Commission in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Uganda showed that child marriage is a seen both as a way of protecting girls and/or alleviating economic hardship caused by conflict and displacement.

2. Child marriage doesn’t just happen to very young girls with very old men

While child marriage rates for girls under the age of 15 are declining globally, in many countries, the marriage of 16 to 17-year-old girls has either stagnated or increased. A report from Human Rights Watch in Nepal drew attention to the increase in “love marriages” in Nepal – the practice of adolescent boys and girls choosing to marry – either to escape a forced marriage, avoid the stigma of being in a sexual relationship outside marriage, or to improve their economic situation.

3. Child marriage can increase the risk of girls becoming infected with HIV

Renewed attention was given to the links between child marriage and HIV at the International AIDS Conference in July: we learned that in 2015, 7,500 young women (15-24) a week became newly infected with HIV. A new literature review on child marriage and HIV highlighted key factors linking child marriage to HIV: un-readiness of girls’ bodies, sex with older and more experienced partners, lower likelihood of using contraception, girls’ inability to speak up for themselves, limited educational opportunities and access to health services.

4. The economic impact of child marriage is more significant than we thought

Initial findings from the World Bank and the International Center for Research and Women has shown that, in addition to the harmful effects on girls’ health, education, rights and wellbeing, the economic impacts of child marriage are significant. Economic impacts include costs for health care systems, lost earnings, lower growth potential and the perpetuation of poverty.

5. Strategies to address child marriage continue to be tested

We continue to learn about the effectiveness of different strategies to address child marriage:

  • In India we learned about the limitations of a conditional cash transfer programme (Apni Beti Apna Dhan) in shifting the value of girls. While the programme increased girls’ likelihood of completing the 8th grade, there was no significant impact on higher education or on child marriage. The research showed the need for complementary interventions to improve the quality of schooling, ensure that families see the value of education and support girls with skills for future employment.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean we have seen lessons learned from strengthening legislation on the age of marriage in a number of countries which have emerged as part of law reforms on child protection and penal responsibility.
  • A new report on the birth and marriage registration and child marriage shed light on the importance of identity papers, particularly birth and marriage certificates, in enforcing minimum age of marriage laws.
  • The BALIKA project in Bangladesh showed the importance of empowering girls for delaying marriage and improving other aspects of their lives. Results from that randomized control trial can be found here.

Research coming up in 2017

2017 will be an even bigger year for research on child marriage. We know that new research is underway in little known regions (such as Georgia, Latin America, and in humanitarian contexts), and on new thematic issues (including sexuality, economic impact, social norms, disability, and so on). If you are planning any research on child marriage, let us know in the comments.