By Marcos Delprato, GMR researcher
The GMR showed in 2013 that there would be 14% fewer child marriages if all girls had primary education. There would be 64% fewer births if they had secondary education. Continuing on this analysis, a study I worked on with a former member of the GMR, Kwame Akyeampong as well as with Ricardo Sabates, Jimena Hernandez-Fernandez shows the flip side of the story – namely, the extent to which a girl child’s education suffers when they are forced to marry early.
First, let’s look at why and when child marriage occurs.
Gender inequality is one of the leading causes of child marriage. There are clear drivers of child marriage around the world, but none larger than gender inequality. In cases of child marriage, girls are seen as having little importance outside of their roles as wives, while boys are given preference in the belief that they will look after their parents in the future. Girls are viewed as a financial burden, which may increase when marriage is delayed since a larger dowry needs to be paid.
Gender inequality is often endorsed by socio-cultural traditions and religion. The view that women have the right to choose when and with whom to marry is inconsistent with community norms, which see them as the property of fathers and husbands. Child marriage is also seen to strengthen family ties, clan and tribal connections or political alliances, and sometimes acts as a mechanism to settle household obligations. Moreover social pressure operates in communities with high prevalence of early marriage where failure to conform can result in disapproval or shame for the family.
Poverty is a major factor underlying child marriage. In low income households, early marriage becomes a strategy of economic survival as the financial burden of raising the child is passed onto the husband. This strategy is more likely to obtain in regions where mortality is high and in poor rural areas where girls are required to produce enough offspring to contribute to household labour needs.
The value of virginity: The value attached to virginity before marriage is another channel that influences the incidence of child marriage. After girls reach puberty, parents worry about sexual assault or girls starting sexual activity early. Many parents decide to protect themselves from this ‘dishonor’ by marrying their daughters at a young age.
Conflict and weak law enforcement exacerbates the likelihood of child marriage. In civil war and ethnic conflict, where the likelihood of rape and sexual abuse increases, child marriage is viewed as a form of protection. In addition, many countries have established laws prohibiting early marriage but more often than not these laws go unenforced. In India, for example, all marriages need to be registered by law but some state governments, such as Bihar, have not made it compulsory. Overall, 74 countries have reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child but have not yet set the minimum age for marriage.
Now let’s look at the deep, and devastating impact early marriage has on girls and their communities.
Marrying early cuts dramatically into education chances. The rate that children drop out of school is twice as large if married early in both sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South and West Asia (SWA). Girls who married young have between 5–6 fewer years of schooling and 50.2% and 22.2% lower probability of being literate in SSA and SWA, respectively.
Poverty and location make a difference to young wives’ education chances: We found that, on average, young married women living in poor communities lose an additional 0.5 years of schooling as compared to those living in non-poor communities, while in some countries young wives in rural communities lose an additional 0.14–0.42 years of schooling compared to those living in urban areas. In Malawi, women living in rural communities would attain a twofold increase in their years of schooling if they could postpone marriage by one year as compared to women from urban communities.
Marrying early has wide-ranging negative implications beyond education. Girls who marry young are more likely to suffer from psychological issues, such as a lack of self-esteem and depression. Young married girls also start child-bearing soon after marriage with increased health risks from complications in pregnancy and child birth. Young married girls are also often victims of long-term violence. These effects spread to societies and regions at large. For example, in low and middle-income countries, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years.
Building on GMR analysis, our study confirmed that education protects, and can break the bonds of child marriage:
In sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, where there are nearly 2.9 million child brides, only 4% and 8% of literate girls are married by age 15, compared to around 20% and 25% of those who are not literate.
Our study showed that postponing the decision to marry young by just one year would increase attainment among young married women in SSA by 0.54 additional years of schooling and their literacy rate by 22 percentage points. In SWA postponing marriage by a year would decrease dropouts from lower secondary school by 5%.
If existing laws on early marriage were enforced, years of schooling would increase by 39% and 15% in SSA and SWA, respectively. Likewise, lower secondary dropouts could be reduced by 11% in SWA with stronger legislation.
We shouldn’t need to come armed with stacks of evidence to show that child marriage is a practice that does not belong in the 21st century. It is a blatant infringement on girls’ rights, suppressing their autonomy, and ridding them of the power to take control of decisions that affect their lives. However, the stubborn persistence of the practice, and the lack of effective policy responses to bring it to a halt, demand that we build a concrete case for change as is summarized in this blog.
There remains no doubt that early marriage has severe consequences on girls’ education. Eliminating early marriage, therefore, is fundamental for countries with significant gender gaps in education. The study found, however, that delaying marriage on its own may not lead to improvements in education in settings where there are only limited opportunities in schooling. In addition, improving education must also go hand in hand with community programmes that tackle other drivers of early marriage such as poverty, poor health, sexual and reproductive health, and domestic violence. Lastly, all this must take place in a context where socio-cultural perceptions on women’s role in society are addressed through parental and community engagement for instance.