Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Putting an End to Child Marriage

by Isobel Coleman
May 22, 2013

Child bride Krishna, 12, stands at a doorway into her compound in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, India on July 30, 2011 (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters). Child bride Krishna, 12, stands at a doorway into her compound in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, India on July 30, 2011 (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters).

Today, CFR published a new report, Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives. The report looks at the scope and causes of this practice, what it means for U.S. foreign policy, and ways the U.S. might tackle child marriage through policy.

Child marriage is a major problem. As the report, written by CFR Fellow Rachel Vogelstein, notes, “the United Nations estimates that in 2011 one in three women aged twenty to twenty-four—almost seventy million—had married before the age of eighteen.” Moreover, each year, almost five million girls who are younger than fifteen are married. And it’s not only absolute numbers: in some countries, the incidence of child marriage is incredibly high. While an estimated 40 percent of the world’s child brides live in India, Niger is the worst offender in terms of incidence of child marriage–nearly three-quarters of women are married by the time they reach eighteen. (India also has a very high child marriage rate, with 47.4 percent of girls married before they turn eighteen). Among other things, child marriage often means that girls’ educational opportunities (and economic prospects) vanish, and that they experience the serious health risks associated with early childbearing, including a much higher danger of maternal mortality.

While there are no easy answers, the report highlights some reasons for optimism, referencing research that suggests that Turkey’s decision to raise the age of mandatory schooling “to age fourteen reduced the proportion of girls married at age sixteen by 45 percent.” Meanwhile, a pilot program in Ethiopia experienced great results by giving girls school supplies and lessening economic burdens on families, one reason parents marry off girls. Namely, the program gave a goat to families who said they would continue their daughters’ educations and not marry them off for two years. The program reduced the likelihood of marriage for young girls in the group by 90 percent.

For more on the problem of child marriage and policy options, you can read the full report as well as Rachel Vogelstein’s “Three Things to Know About Child Marriage” on the Development Channel. As she argues, “Child marriage is undoubtedly a violation of human rights: it truncates girls’ education, robs them of their economic potential, endangers their health, and exposes them to sexual violence and abuse. But child marriage also matters because it undermines U.S. interests in development, prosperity, and stability.”

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