What does child marriage mean for girls’ lives? And why does child marriage persist?

(New York) – Child marriage and a lack of access to quality education are major barriers to progress for girls across the globe, Human Rights Watch said today, on the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child.

Millions of girls worldwide are married or at risk of being married, and global progress by governments to end child marriage and ensure access to quality primary and secondary education is slow. Child marriage occurs in every region of the world: one out of every four girls marries before age 18.

“Child marriage blights the lives of millions of girls, including by depriving them of their education,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless governments act decisively, the number of married girls and women married as children will only grow, holding both the girls and their countries back from reaching their full potential.”

Girls in India during a hygiene training as part of the Great WASH Yatra. Himanshu Khagta, WASH United, 2012

Loss of access to education is both a cause and a consequence of child marriage. Around the world, 32 million primary school and 29 million lower-secondary school-age girls are out of school, and almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Girls who are out of school are at heightened risk of being married as children.

South Asia has the highest prevalence of child marriage, with one in two girls married before the age of 18. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.  Child marriage also occurs in high-income countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.  Human Rights Watch has documented the adverse consequences of child marriage in Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, and Yemen.

Child marriage prevents girls from participating in all spheres of life but has a particularly pernicious impact on their access to education.  Girls who marry often leave school prematurely due to social pressure, domestic responsibilities, and pregnancy and parenting. In many countries cultural or religious beliefs stigmatize unmarried, pregnant girls, with the result that pregnant girls are forced into early marriages.

Discriminatory government policies often bar married or pregnant girls from attending school. In Tanzania, for example, Human Rights Watch found that school officials conduct forced pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. The government has also stalled on its commitment to increase the legal age of marriage to 18 for boys and girls.

Girls in Malawi, South Sudan, Nepal, and Bangladesh told Human Rights that once married or having given birth they faced family pressure to drop out, lack of child care, inability to pay education-related costs, and the need to do household chores. The government’s failure to provide genuinely free and accessible education for all contributes to the pressure on those most at risk.

Syrian refugee Omayma al Hushan, 14, who launched an initiative against child marriage among Syrian refugees, walks on her way back from school in Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, April 21, 2016. © 2016 REUTERS

All UN member countries have made a commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guarantee gender equality, end child marriage, and provide universal access to free primary and secondary education for all children by 2030.

Governments should adopt—and fully enforce—laws that set 18 as the minimum marriage age for boys and girls, Human Rights Watch said. They should also enact laws to ensure the free and full consent to marriage of both spouses and to provide penalties for violence and intimidation to pressure people to marry.  Governments should educate parents, guardians and community leaders about the harmful effects of child marriage and put programs in place to protect girls at risk.

Governments should also guarantee that girls have equal access to free quality primary and secondary education, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that girls get the support they need to stay in school, and reverse harmful policies and practices that discriminate against girls, including forced pregnancy testing and regulations that allow for the expulsion of pregnant or married girls. Governments should also provide information to parents, guardians and community leaders about the benefits of educating girls and step-up efforts to keep girls in school in rural and remote areas where child marriage is more prevalent.

“Girls in school should not have to fear marriage depriving them of their education,” said Zama Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.  “Governments should put in place laws and policies that ban child marriage and ensure that all girls have access to free primary and secondary education.”