Despite being a gross violation of human rights, child marriages still remain a widespread practice across the world with Sub-Saharan Africa ranking the highest in numbers at a staggering 38%. Current UNICEF Data on child marriage reveals that 21% of young women were married before their 18th birthday, which totals more than 650 million girls and women alive today who were married as children.
Child marriage often inhibits a girl’s development because it curtails their opportunities for further education, or career and vocational advancement. Young girls often struggle with early pregnancy, social isolation, and increased risk of domestic violence.
While there have been efforts to reduce the prevalence of child marriage globally, the issue still persists. UNICEF Data notes that the progress must accelerate or more than 150 million girls alive today will still be at risk of becoming child brides in 2030.
A number of international conventions and agreements address the issue of child marriage and new findings on the issue indicate that urgent action is needed from the international community. It is possible to end child marriage but efforts need to be doubled now.
Scale of child marriage is bigger than we thought
Through the decade, UNICEF has made great strides in estimating the total number of women and girls alive today who have been affected by child marriage. This has helped in identifying crisis areas as well as appropriate policies towards child protection. By 2019, significant numbers indicated that the percentage of women aged 20 to 24 years were first married before the age of 15.
While previous estimates showed that 400 million women aged between 20 and 49 had been married before their 18th birthday, current figures reveal that more than 650 million women of all ages, living today, were married before 18. That’s roughly 10% of the world’s population.
Progress on child marriage not happening fast enough
Admittedly, the prevalence of child marriage is decreasing globally. For example, numbers in South Asia have dropped by more than one-third, from nearly 50% to 30%. However, although the rates of child marriage are going down globally, the total number of girls married off in childhood still stands at 12 million per year.
UNICEF identifies three possible scenarios in the coming decades:
- If we don’t see any reduction in child marriage, 950 million women and girls will be married as children by 2030 and nearly 1.2 billion by 2050.
- If progress continues at the same rate, 490 million girls will avoid early marriage but 700 million women and girls will still be affected by the practice in 2050.
- If we accelerate progress, we will see a reduction in the numbers affected by child marriage but 570 million women and girls will still be affected by 2030 and up to 450 million by 2050.
At this pace, current efforts will not be enough to offset the trends and prevent more girls from being forced into marriage.
Urgent need to act
Child marriage not only affects a girl’s life but also her community. The agenda needs to be set to prioritize global development for the next decade and more specifically towards the eradication of child marriages. The statistics provided by UNICEF give us a solid basis for identifying ambitious yet realistic targets to measure our progress on reducing child marriage in the development framework.
It can be difficult to grasp numbers on such a large scale. Yet behind these numbers are millions of girls whose lives are turned upside down by a decision that is outside of their control. We must do everything we can to make sure girls regain control and agency in their lives. We must allow girls to be girls.
Written By – Winnie Njeri