A Complex System: The Economic Benefits of Ending Child Marriage


SEATTLE — There are many moral and humanitarian reasons to oppose child marriage; the practice violates women’s rights and negatively impacts their health and education. A new report from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) now adds an economic incentive to invest in ending child marriage. By 2030, reduced welfare spending and increased individual and national earnings could save developing countries trillions of dollars.

The prevalence of child marriage decreased globally over the past 30 years. However, it is still practiced in many parts of the world; over 700 million women alive today married before their eighteenth birthday. According to UNICEF data, Niger had the highest prevalence of child marriage in 2016 with 76 percent, followed by the Central African Republic and Chad with 68 percent.

In Asia, the practice is the most prevalent in Bangladesh and India with 52 and 47 percent respectively. Child marriage also occurs in parts of America and Eastern Europe.

In the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), world leaders pledge to end child marriage by 2030. In their 2017 report on the progress of the SDGs, the U.N. stated that “[c]hild marriage is declining, but not fast enough.” The ICRW study’s authors commended raising awareness of the issue, calling for increased investment to accelerate the fight to end child marriage.

Poverty is one of the main reasons for child marriage. In some regions, families choose to marry their daughters earlier because younger brides require smaller dowries. Some families sell their daughters as a form of income. In other cases, the families simply marry their daughters to hand over the economic burden of their care.

Another reason for early marriages is the importance traditionally ascribed to a woman’s purity and virginity; any extramarital sexual contacts are to be forestalled.

Many parents marry their daughters at a young age in order to protect them either from economic insecurity or sexual exploitation. In Syria, there is an increased number of child marriages. This is due to the recent humanitarian crisis, diminishing mothers’ hopes to protect young girls from sexual assault and kidnapping in refugee camps or by soldiers.

But these hopes are often belied; girls who were married as children are at a higher risk of intimate partner violence and are more likely to live in poverty as adults.

There are various reasons why children are married, but as coordinator of the global partnership Girls Not Brides Heather Hamilton writes in The Guardian, “Ultimately, it happens to girls because they are girls […]. Child marriage is driven by social norms that accord girls little value.”

The ICRW now hopes to inspire the international community to focus on ending child marriage by shining a light on its detrimental economic consequences. The World Bank partnered to create the report, analyzing data from fifteen countries in South Asia, the Middle East and different parts of Africa. This array of regions allows the report to represent a wide variety of settings.

Girls who are married at a young age bear more children and begin reproducing at a younger age. The report finds that reducing these early pregnancies and childbirths would result in a decline of deaths and stunted growth of children under 5 years of age and would relieve healthcare systems financially. It would also affect the overall fertility rate and therefore “reduce population growth substantially” – in turn leading to decreased spending on welfare and public education.

Girls protected from child marriage would be less likely to drop out of school and could increase their income in adulthood by nine percent. National incomes could be increased by one percent according to the ICRW calculations. The report argues that ending child marriage would have a positive economic impact on individuals as well as nations.

Developing countries could save trillions of dollars by ending child marriage. Due to the complex variety of causes and circumstances, this is not a simple task. As the report’s authors state, “it is necessary to adapt interventions to the particular context that prevails in any country.” Fortunately, there are various promising approaches. Passing legislation outlawing child marriage is important, but does not necessarily guarantee proper enforcement.

Legal action also needs to be supported by strategies addressing traditional and societal norms. These strategies include increasing girls’ access to education, engaging and educating leaders in the community and providing economic support for families.

Lena Riebl

Photo: Flickr


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