Every day, 41,000 girls marry before they are 18 years old. That’s 15 million girls every year. While child marriage can happen to both boys and girls, in most places around the world, the practice mostly affects girls.
Girls like Nafissa* (not her real name), from Niger.
“I stopped (going to) school in order to marry,” says the young teen, “It was because of people’s mentality and their prejudices. I was married during a school break and, before I could return, I became pregnant. After that, I never returned.”
Child marriage deeply affects child brides, their children, their families, and even countries. Ending it is a target under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, child marriage will cost developing countries trillions of dollars by 2030, according to a new report by the World Bank Group and the International Center for Research on Women.
Girls often get married because of pressure from parents and relatives, poverty and lack of alternatives. Limited access to quality education and families’ prioritization of boys’ rather than girls’ education–in part because of limited job opportunities–contribute to perpetuate the practice.
“We are faced with long distances to primary schools. Girls on their way to school meet men. Later, some get pregnant and drop out of school,” said a parent from Uganda. “Also, we have no vocational school that will train our girls after they complete primary and lower secondary education, so we see it as a waste of resources to educate girls.”
The impact of child marriage can be devastating for child brides in terms of lost education and earnings opportunities as well as health risks when giving birth at a young age.
“Child marriage not only puts a stop to girls’ hopes and dreams. It also hampers efforts to end poverty and achieve economic growth and equity,” said Quentin Wodon, lead author of the report. “Ending this practice is not only the morally right thing to do but also the economically smart thing to do.”
World Bank Group analysis suggests that the economic cost of child marriage is high. Ending child marriage and early child-bearing could reduce fertility and lower population growth by about one tenth in high prevalence countries. The analysis suggests that globally, by 2030, gains in well-being for populations from lower population growth could reach more than $500 billion annually.
For children of mothers giving birth at a young age, there would also be reduced risks of children dying by age five or being affected by delayed physical development (stunting). Globally, the estimated benefits of lower under-five mortality and malnutrition could reach more than $90 billion annually by 2030.
Another important benefit of ending child marriage would be an increase in women’s expected earnings in the labor market. Due in large part to the impact of child marriage on education, women who marry as children have, on average across 15 countries, earnings that are nine percent lower than if they had married later.
Finally, countries would also save on their education budget. By 2030, eliminating child marriage today would save many governments five percent or more of their education budget.
Action to end child marriage
The international community is increasingly aware of the negative impacts of child marriage. In the Dominican Republic, an upper middle income country where more than one in three girls still marry before 18, new country data by UNICEF and the World Bank Group on the economic impacts of child marriage will feed into a campaign to end the practice.
With financing from IDA, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries, the Sahel Women Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) project is working with the governments of Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to empower adolescents and women. The project aims to delay marriage, and expand access to reproductive, child and maternal health services by working with communities, including religious and traditional leaders. The $205 million SWEDD project also offers “safe space” programs for girls and includes conditional cash transfers to encourage them to stay in school.
In Uganda, girls’ clubs run by BRAC Uganda, a branch of the Bangladesh-based international organization BRAC, have demonstrated success. Some 1,500 clubs in Uganda offer games, music, sex education, financial literacy, vocational training, and access to microfinance for young women trying to become entrepreneurs. Girls who have been members of the clubs for two years are 58 percent less likely to marry early.
One of the best ways to end child marriage is to keep girls in school
Each year of secondary education may reduce the likelihood of marrying before the age of 18 by five percentage points or more in many countries. By contrast, child brides are much more likely to drop out of school and complete fewer years of education than their peers who marry early.
“If my parents had allowed me to study, I would have studied very sincerely. My friends could continue their studies and now they have become wiser and cleverer,” says *Pooja (not her real name) from Nepal, “If I had studied I would have been working. But my parents held my marriage and I couldn’t do anything after marriage. I now have children to look after.”
By keeping girls in school, Pooja and other girls would have had a better chance for safety and security, to health and education, and to make their own life choices and decisions.
Girls are powerful agents of socioeconomic change and the World Bank Group is committed to keeping them in school and learning. Girls who complete secondary education tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn more, marry later, have fewer children and provide better health care and education for the next generation. These factors combined can help lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty.
In 2016, the World Bank Group pledged that it would invest $2.5 billion over five years in education projects that directly benefit adolescent girls.
The upcoming World Development Report 2018, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, takes stock of what we know and how to expand the scope and quality of education around the world, especially for the most marginalized.
In addition, building on the work on the economic costs of child marriage, the World Bank Group is preparing a follow-up study on the economic benefits of investing in girls’ education.