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In Kayes, a small city in western Mali, community members have come together to talk about a practice that is all too common yet rarely discussed.

One woman volunteers the story of a friend’s sister: “She didn’t want to marry but her parents forced her to. She was only 13 or 14. I don’t know the exact age of her husband, but he was old,” says the woman. “Not long after, the girl became pregnant and her delivery was one of the most difficult. […] She spent four months unable to walk and needed people at her bedside to help with all her needs […] Doctors counselled her parents — they had been able to save her this time, but the next time, if she died in birth, they would not be held responsible.”

The residents of Kayes exchange many such stories, testifying to the toll that child marriage is taking on their friends, neighbours, and families. They speak of premature deaths, disrupted schooling, and for many, the eventual return of a daughter to the household, now burdened with a child and with no means of support.

More than 600 meetings such as this one occurred in Mali, Niger, and Togo as part of participatory action-research led by national institutions in collaboration with Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), an IDRC research partner. For these researchers and other IDRC-supported teams studying child marriage, youth participation is essential. The dire consequences of child marriage are not well known, but a closer look at why teens marry uncovers the circumstances and limited information that constrain their choices. IDRC-supported research is helping to provide insights into  their reality to develop solutions that will prevent child marriage.

A more accurate picture of child marriage

Unequal gender norms dictate that girls are much more likely than boys to marry before the age of 18 — according to UNICEF, some 650 million girls and women alive today were married before their eighteenth birthday. Child marriage is most common in the world’s most impoverished areas and typically involves girls with limited employment opportunities and who do not attend school.

To date, most research on child marriage and parenting has drawn on national survey data to explain the underlying causes. Research has focused less on the daily experiences of young people, and the role of boys and men have been almost completely overlooked. The IDRC-supported young marriage and parenthood study posed questions to youth in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Zambia to learn more about how they ended up married or co-habiting, how family decision-making is shared, and what help they receive from family members and service providers. The Young Lives project at the University of Oxford — a research project focused on child poverty involving 12,000 children in four countries over 15 years — is collaborating with other partners in this comparative research and leading an effort to consolidate and communicate the findings of IDRC’s recent research on child marriage.

I feel as if my future was stolen... The first thing I regret is about my education, that I could no longer go to the university and learn.

Divorced young man in Mazabuka, Zambia

Beyond poverty, why do teens marry?

Observers may use the term “forced marriage” interchangeably with child marriage, but while traditional arranged marriages — common in India and other parts of South Asia — are often imposed, not all of those who enter into unions while still children consider them forced. In Peru, for example, many girls in informal unions had already dropped out of school before they moved in with their partner, seeking protection along with emotional and financial support. Many were leaving violent households where they had little say in decisions over their lives. For them, these marriages or common-law unions offer a form of escape.

IDRC-supported research in Côte d'Ivoire also found an increase in the number of girls choosing to marry. These girls were often motivated by securing the boy they liked most rather than see him with another girl.

In contexts where opportunities are scarce, services poor, and life uncertain, adolescents and their families consider marriage to be the best way to protect girls from pregnancy outside marriage, sexually transmitted disease, and sexual violence. In parts of Africa and South Asia, the idea of an age limit on marriage seems arbitrary: girls are considered “ready” when they seem physically mature. In urban slums of Bangladesh, where there is a high risk of sexual assault in crime-ridden areas, research found that despite laws restricting marriage to 18 and over, many families consider their daughters to be adults after puberty and ready for marriage by 16 or 17.

My mother told me, ‘If I die, who is going to want to marry you? I will have peace after death if I can get you married before I die.

Young married woman from Dhaka, Bangladesh

In three districts studied in Zambia, pregnancy almost invariably preceded early marriage. With girls expected to contribute to their expenses once they reach puberty, many feel pressured to engage in transactional sex. Some girls sought money for personal or household needs while others had sex with young men who promised to help with school fees. While romantic love was the least common reason given for child marriage, a desire for affection led some to engage in sex at a young age, especially those with difficult family relationships and limited means.

Equipping teens for better choices

Two young women
Youth working with WILDAF in Niger act out a scene to advocate against child marriage. The scene depicts a mother who plans to marry off her young daughter, but WILDAF representatives convince her that the girl should stay in school instead.

Youth working with WILDAF in Niger act out a scene to advocate against child marriage. The scene depicts a mother who plans to marry off her young daughter, but WILDAF representatives convince her that the girl should stay in school instead.

IDRC-supported research not only provides insight into the reasons teens marry, it also tests efforts to empower teens and raise awareness of the consequences of child marriage. The WiLDAF-led research teams in Mali, Niger, and Togo trained groups of young men and women  to advocate against child marriage. They also reached out to local authorities and religious and traditional leaders to enlist them as allies. Meetings like the one in Kayes are drawing links between child marriage and the poor health and educational outcomes resulting from the practice.

Before I thought like many other girls that getting married early and having children allowed a woman to stay young forever. However, since we learned about the negative consequences of early marriage, I have committed to continue my studies.

Young woman from Lama-Tessi, Togo, who received training to advocate against child marriage

Researchers in Pakistan who sought to equip girls to advocate for themselves also enlisted brothers and mothers, because both can be severe guardians over the movements and choices of their sisters and daughters. Brothers were trained as youth leaders alongside their sisters to promote campaigns in their communities.

While lessons are still emerging from these research projects, it is clear that boys and girls need more information about sex, reproduction, and their rights. Most young parents interviewed in Ethiopia, India, and Zambia only learned how to prevent unwanted pregnancies after the birth of their first child. Health clinics are often perceived as unwelcoming to teenagers and are said to stigmatize those seeking information on sexual health. This leaves youth with incomplete and inaccurate knowledge gleaned from interactions at school, at home, and with friends that mostly stresses abstinence and condom use — which is often ignored.

My husband and in-laws want me to have a baby as soon as possible. They do not think of my age and that I am only 16.

Young woman from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Looking forward: The need for locally-informed solutions

Child marriage stubbornly persists despite being widely condemned as a human rights violation. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 calls for the elimination of the practice, and national governments are embracing a range of strategies to tackle the issue. Ethiopia, for example, aims to end the practice by 2025, and the elimination of child marriage has become a central focus of the country’s National Strategy and Action Plan on Harmful Traditional Practices. In India, efforts are backed with legislation and through the National Adolescent Health Strategy.

The findings emerging from IDRC-supported research bolster these efforts with youth perspectives. “Without knowing how they [youth] see their challenges and what they and their children need to live healthier, more productive lives, programs and policies designed to support them risk missing the mark,” says Gillian Mann, head of Research and Evaluation at Child Frontiers, a consulting group partnering with Young Lives.

Finding solutions in regions where the practice stubbornly persists demands a grounded understanding of what teens are experiencing and how their communities can respond. IDRC-supported research confirms the role of poverty and gender inequality in perpetuating child marriage and it shows how the drivers and daily reality of child marriage is influenced by local contexts.

Learn more

Read the book Dreaming of a Better Life: Child Marriage Through Adolescent Eyes, based on findings from the IDRC-funded research and intervention projects described in this story.

Top image: WILDAF