Study Highlights Data Needed to Reduce Child Marriage

Few investigations have explored the diversity of married girls’ experiences depending on how old they were when they got married. A new study by the Population Council’s Ethiopia country director, Annabel Erulkar, highlights the unique vulnerability of Ethiopia’s youngest married girls and calls for specific programs to delay marriage among those under age 15—a population of young girls often missed by current programs aimed at curbing child marriage.

Risks of Early Marriage

Without significant changes in current investments and programs, experts estimate that by 2020 more than 100 million young girls worldwide will be married before they reach their 18th birthday; 14 million of them will be married before they reach 15. In Ethiopia’s Amhara region, rates of child marriage are among the highest in the world. Child marriage (defined as marriage before age 18) not only prevents girls from reaching their personal and economic potential but poses serious health risks and increases girls’ vulnerability to sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, and HIV.

Not surprisingly, the likelihood of a woman bearing children before age 18 greatly increases if she is married. In low- and middle-income countries, complications of pregnancy and delivery are a leading cause of death among women ages 15–19.

Girls Under 15 Are Most At-Risk

Erulkar examined data gathered from 1,671 rural and urban women aged 20–24, who were interviewed as part of a population-based survey conducted in 2009–10 in seven of Ethiopia’s nine major regions. The information in the data set is far more detailed on the topic of marriage than data available from the Demographic and Health Survey.

Erulkar found that one in six of the young women interviewed (ages 20–24) had married by age 15 and that 90 percent of those marriages had been arranged (compared with 50 percent of marriages among women who married at 18 or 19). Girls who were younger than 15 when they married were less likely than girls who married when they were older to know about their impending marriages or to want the marriage. They were at an increased risk of intimate partner violence and were four times more likely than those who married later (ages 18–19) to have experienced forced first sex. Most of them experienced their first marital sex before they started menstruating.

Lack of Educational Opportunities

The study found that level of education—for both the girls and their parents—was a significant determinant of whether, and at what age, a young girl was married. As compared with those who had some formal education, women who had no education had nine times the risk of being married before age 15 (and five times the risk of being married between ages 15 and 17). The younger a woman was at the time she married, the more likely it was that her parents had no education (97 percent of mothers and 91 percent of fathers of girls married under 15).

Erulkar also found that, contrary to common belief, most girls did not leave school to marry. Instead, the study showed that girls who married very early were less likely than girls who married later to have attended school at all.

The Need for Targeted Prevention Programs

Erulkar states that to effectively address child marriage, investments should be made in regions where large proportions of girls are married before age 15. The study’s findings demonstrate the need for significant programmatic shifts to prevent child marriage. Most prevention programs fail to make distinctions between girls of different ages. Many of these programs are school-based. However, the girls most vulnerable to child marriage have no education, are younger than 15, and reside in rural areas.

“These findings have implications for the design of programs aimed at reducing the prevalence of child marriage,” explains Erulkar. “Girls who are young and out of school may be highly vulnerable to being married off; if so, community-based programs that get girls into school and keep them there may be more effective at combating early child marriage than are strategies to address the school environment or community attitudes toward early marriage.”

One example of an effective program is the Population Council’s Berhane Hewan (“Light for Eve”) project, which has used conditional cash transfers, the provision of school supplies, and community involvement to successfully increase school enrollment and delay marriage among girls aged 10–14. Erulkar is spearheading an ambitious expansion of this approach in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso.

“Child marriage has far-reaching impacts on populations, development, and girls’ health and well-being,” says Erulkar. “To have the greatest impact, programs to address child marriage should focus on regions where large proportions of girls are married before age 15.”


Erulkar, Annabel. 2013. “Early marriage, marital relations and intimate partner violence in Ethiopia,” International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 39(1): 6–13.

Outside Funding

United Nations Population Fund/Ethiopia