An estimated 115 million boys and men around the world were married as children, Unicef said on Friday in its first ever in-depth analysis of child grooms. Of these, one in five children, or 23 million, were married before the age of 15.
Using data from 82 countries, the study reveals that child marriage among boys is prevalent across a range of countries around the world, spanning sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, South and East Asia as well as the Pacific.
“Marriage steals childhood,” said Unicef’s executive director, Henrietta Fore.
“Child grooms are forced to take on adult responsibilities for which they may not be ready. Early marriage brings early fatherhood, and with it added pressure to provide for a family, cutting short education and job opportunities.”
According to the data, the Central African Republic has the highest prevalence of child marriage among males (28%), followed by Nicaragua (19%) and Madagascar (13%).
The new estimates bring the total number of child brides and child grooms to 765 million. Girls remain disproportionately affected, with one in five young women aged 20 to 24 years old getting married before their 18th birthday, compared to 1 in 30 young men.
Figure is ‘overwhelming’
Speaking to News24 from Nigeria on Friday, James Elder, Unicef’s eastern and southern Africa chief of communication, said the numbers were “overwhelming”.
“When you break it down it’s around 12 million new child brides or grooms per year. So, when you’re living in the moment, that translates to 22 marriages per minute.
“One associates marriages with happiness and celebration, and yet, child marriages are quite the opposite. A marriage should be a union of people trying to increase their chances to take on and do well in the world. Child marriages do the opposite – they deprive kids of opportunities.”
“For example, we know for a fact that every year of additional schooling can increase a person’s wages by about 10%, and yet we know that children who get married tend to drop out of school, they tend to have children younger, and those children then suffer poor nutrition, poor stimulation, poor health care, and so the cycle of poverty is perpetuated,” says Elder.
Elder says the staggering number of child marriages has taken away a world of opportunities from millions of boys and girls.
Why are kids getting married?
There are many factors, says Elder. “Poverty, the perception that marriage will provide protection, family honour, social norms like customary and religious laws that condone the practice, as well as inadequate legislative frameworks. All those things are at play, but it is a complicated issue.”
According to Elder, child marriage is prevalent throughout the world.
“Where I live and work in eastern and southern Africa there are a lot of child marriages.
“In South Africa alone, around 6% of girls marry before they turn 18. But that figure might be higher because a lot of it doesn’t get reported.
“Asia used to be the area with the highest percentage, and it still has the highest number, but the highest percentage now goes to this region.”
Elder says figures in Latin America are also very high. “It is a global phenomenon that Unicef works on around the world. Ethiopia used to [be] one of the top five countries in sub-Saharan Africa for child marriage, and that prevalence has dropped by about a third in the past 10 years. So, things can be done where there is will from communities all the way up to the government.”
Dealing with perceptions is ‘not easy’
But it is not easy, says Elder. “You’re dealing with a perception in a family or community or customary or religious laws – these are big things to challenge.”
Some of these perceptions are that early marriage protects children, especially girls, and that it can help reduce poverty.
“But we have the stats to show that it actually accentuates rather than reduces poverty. And it certainly doesn’t protect girls, it puts them more at risk of injuries during childbirth, or death…
“The biggest solution is to empower adolescent girls and that is such a right in practice and a right in principle, but that takes time.”
“Communities and countries need to start understanding that gender balances are not just a phrase. There is probably no more powerful way to increase a country’s economy than to keep girls in school and give them a quality education.
“As Unicef we are listening to communities and then starting a conversation around why, despite customary or religious laws or traditions, child marriage is actually working against the prosperity of those communities as well as against the health and well-being of girls.”
Young parents produce underdeveloped children
With boys, the concerns are taking on early fatherhood and missing out on formal schooling, reducing the chance of gaining good or indeed any employment, says Elder.
“With girls it’s even more pronounced. Their odds of experiencing domestic violence are increased, they are more likely to become pregnant during adolescence…
“So, the economic practice of keeping them in school as long as possible delays their motherhood. We know a woman who has received a secondary education increases the chances of her daughter receiving an education threefold.
“All those things increase a mother’s ability to care for her child and provide basic nutrition, make sure the child is vaccinated, which ensure early brain development. South Africa is actually a leader in this.
“You are building moms and dads who play with their children, stimulate them, tell them stories, play games – these things have a huge influence on a child’s brain.
“But when you have a 15-year-old becoming a mom or dad … they don’t know that. And so, you lose a huge opportunity to stimulate that baby – for free, there is no cost to something like that,” Elder said.