What is child marriage?
Child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union that takes place before one or both of the people involved are 18. It also describes a marriage that takes place without the free or valid consent of one or both partners and involves either physical or emotional pressure.
In Nigeria, Hauwa* was abducted when she was nine years old and held captive by Boko Haram for over four years.
“I was sent to the market to buy something when Boko Haram came and captured me and a lot of other girls and women,” she says. “I was forced to get married when I was 11.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
What causes child marriage?
- Gender inequality: girls and women often occupy a lower status as a result of social and cultural traditions, attitudes and beliefs that deny them their rights.
- Poverty: in families on a low income, girls may be seen as an economic burden. The perception that a girl’s potential to earn an income is comparatively poor pushes girls out of their homes and into marriage.
- Customs: in many countries, the importance of preserving family ‘honour’ and girls’ virginity means parents push their daughters into marriage before they’re ready. People believe marriage safeguards against ‘immoral’ or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.
- Failure to enforce laws: sometimes families aren’t aware they’re breaking the law. In some countries early marriage is so prevalent, prosecutions are seldom brought.
- Conflicts, disasters and emergencies: disasters and emergencies increase economic pressures on households and many families who wouldn’t previously have considered early marriage turn to it as a last resort.
- Lack of education: girls with no education are more likely to be married before the age of 18 than those with a secondary education.
‘I’ve made it my mission to combat child marriage’
Now 32, Ayalnesh was married to a much older man when she was 12 years old.
“I cried my eyes out when my mother told me I had to marry him but she wouldn’t listen,” Ayalnesh says.
After 13 years of physical abuse, Ayalnesh finally managed to escape. Now she’s a village leader and playing a critical role in ending child marriage in her community – and she’s determined her two daughters, eight-year-old Elamtsehay and 14-year-old Zeynesh, won’t be married young.
Our work to end child marriage
Around the world, we’re working with girls, their families and communities to end child marriage by:
- empowering young people to advocate and campaign against child marriage
- providing safe spaces and support networks for girls at risk
- helping families understand the consequences of child marriage
- working with communities to make sure girls are valued
- influencing marriage laws through advocacy and lobbying
- supporting girls to stay in school and finding sources of financial support to help families pay for their daughters’ school costs.
The role of education
Ending forced marriage requires a major shift in attitudes and beliefs. Legislation alone can’t achieve this and must be supported with extensive educational and community outreach programmes.
- Educating girls: we work with girls to make sure they’re aware of their rights and the impact child marriage will have on their futures. In countries where forced marriage legislation exists, it’s vital that girls know about it and who to contact if they’re feeling pressured to marry.
- Educating parents: parents often allow forced marriage because they have traditional beliefs about gender roles and are unaware they’re breaking the law.
- Educating community leaders: individuals who have important roles in communities set an example for everyone else. If they endorse forced marriage, then people will continue to accept it. We work closely with community role models to help change beliefs.
‘We have to empower girls’
In Nepal, Laxmi was 16 when her parents told her they wanted her to get married. She immediately told her friends at the children’s club she attends, which is supported by Plan International.
With the support of one of our local partners she was able to persuade her parents to change their minds.
“We have to empower girls,” Laxmi says. “If more girls are aware of their rights, their situation would be better.”
Our campaign successes
- Guatemala: in 2015 we helped achieve a huge milestone, as the minimum age for marriage was raised to 18, from 14 for girls and 16 for boys.
- Malawi: more than 42,000 people signed our petition to end child marriage in Malawi and in 2017, the government approved a bill to make child marriage illegal.
- Tanzania: our youth-led action was part of a wider movement calling for change. In 2019 the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling raising the minimum age of marriage for girls from 14 to 18.