Child marriage is a human rights violation that is commonplace in dozens of countries in most regions worldwide, even where laws forbid the practice.
Child marriage jeopardizes girls’ rights, such as the right to education, because new brides are usually forced to drop out of school to bear children and to provide household labour. In addition, married girls have few social connections, restricted mobility, limited control over resources and little or no power in their new households and are thus especially vulnerable to domestic violence. 
The practice excludes girls from decisions regarding the timing of marriage and choice of spouse. It marks an abrupt and violent initiation into sexual relations, often with a husband who is a considerably older adult and a relative stranger.
Listen to Dr. Asha Mohamud speak to Channel Africa on child marriage.
When a girl delays marriage, everyone benefits. A girl who marries later is more likely to stay in school, work, and reinvest her income into her family, which helps lead her family and eventually her community out of poverty. Crucially, a girl who marries later is more empowered to choose whether, when, and how many children to have. She and her family are more educated and healthier.
Most countries with high rates of child marriage have laws that prohibit the practice, which persists because of strong traditional norms, as well as the failure to enforce existing laws. In some countries where the legal age of marriage is 18, there are provisions that allow marriages to occur earlier with parental consent.
While the practice is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, child marriage occurs in all regions, including in developed countries. Within many countries, there are regions with high rates of girls married before the age of 15.
Child marriage has a devastating effect on girls
Child marriage can lead to life-threatening health consequences. These young girls are neither physically mature enough nor psychologically ready to become wives and mothers.
In developing countries, 90 per cent of births among adolescents aged 15-19 occur in marriage. Girls are often pressured to have a child soon after getting married, despite being children themselves. Early pregnancy is filled with risks. Preventing child marriage would help reduce the risks of HIV infection, maternal death and disabilities, including obstetric fistula. Complications from pregnancy and childbearing are the number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years.
Child brides have limited access to and use of contraception, sexual and reproductive health services and information. Only one in five (approximately 22 per cent) of married adolescent girls aged 15-19 years old are currently using contraception (satisfying less than half of the exist ing demand for contraception). This proportion is lower (only 15 per cent) among girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
Child marriage limits girls options and their communities’ development
Destaye, 11, faces an abrupt end to her childhood with her marriage to a man 12 years older than her.
Child marriage results in high development costs and limited life options for girls. When girls are married as children, they are denied an education, robbed of their childhood and opportunities to develop their potential at the pivotal life stage when they should become healthy, empowered and productive.
Generally, the poorest, least educated girls, many of them living in rural areas, are most affected. By foreshortening their education and potential, this harmful practice further entrenches girls and their future families in poverty.
Girls’ vulnerability increase in humanitarian settings when family and social structures are disrupted. In some humanitarian crises, child marriage has been used as a protection strategy against random sexual violence.
All girls, married or unmarried, are entitled to human rights and have immense potential. All girls are created equally, but do not enjoy equal opportunities. Girls at risk of child marriage and married girls need protection and programmes that respect their rights and can turn their situation around.
What must be done to break the silence on child marriage?
We need to bring greater attention to the situations faced by girls at risk of child marriage and married girls and advocate strongly for their rights. Child marriage is not good for girls nor development. The world cannot afford to see the rights, health and potential of thousands of girls each day being squandered.
We need to work with policy makers and parliamentarians to enact and enforce laws against child marriage. This includes appropriate legislation to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18, and to eliminate differences in the legal age between boys and girls.
We need to work closely with communities, traditional leaders, families, and the girls themselves to highlight the dangers posed to girls, promote their rights, and find alternatives to the practice.
And we need to promote investments that build up adolescent girls’ capabilities and skills, especially education. Girls’ education, especially post-primary and secondary, is the single most important factor associated with age at marriage. Girls especially need social support and access to programmes that provide life skills, literacy, livelihoods, and sexual and reproductive health information and services, such as family planning and life-saving maternal health services.
Educated and healthy girls stay in school longer, marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children, develop life skills, and earn higher incomes. They can help lift themselves and their present and future families out of poverty.
Current youth-serving programmes are not reaching the most marginalized adolescent girls who continue to be left out or overlooked. Doing more of the same will continue their marginalization. We need to make an effort to identify and reach the most vulnerable girls through programmes that are tailored according to their unique circumstances.
Investments should provide spaces for vulnerable girls to become literate and develop basic skills, critical health care knowledge, obtain access to social services including sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention, gain vocational and employable skills for work, and have access to friends and mentors.
Married girls need special targeted strategies that provide access to education, life skills, health including SRH and HIV prevention, and participation opportunities. Maternal health programmes need to be reoriented with dedicated outreach for the youngest, first-time mothers to use antenatal, essential and emergency obstetric care, and post-delivery services.
An adolescent girl will be an active citizen in her community. She will become a mother when she is ready and invest in her future children’s health and education. She will be able to contribute fully to her society and break the cycle of poverty.
When investments in girls are made, everyone benefits: their families, communities, and most importantly, the girls themselves.
UNFPA works with governments and partners at all levels to foster supportive policies, legislation and dialogue about adolescent girls’ human rights and dignity. We bring greater attention to their needs and realities, given the harmful and life-threatening risks they face from child marriage.
With communities, UNFPA supports programmes that enable elders, parents, and other influential leaders to identify the dangers of child marriage to girls, promote their rights, and find community-owned solutions to collectively discourage and eventually end the practice.
UNFPA assists the most marginalized and vulnerable girls in deferring marriage by advocating for girls to stay in school; building their life skills; providing them safe spaces to learn, play and make friends; providing sexual and reproductive health and HIV information and services; and improving their overall economic and social well-being.
There is a huge cost to inaction on child marriage. It is time for policy makers, parliamentarians, communities, families and young people to address this issue head on. Let’s deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. Let girls be girls.
 Population Council, Child marriage: Overview, Accessed: July 2012