Council Commentary

A Call to Action to End Child Marriage and Prioritize Affected Girls Under 15

Judith Bruce is a Population Council senior associate and policy analyst. Annabel Erulkar is a senior associate and director of the Council's Ethiopia office. 

Each year, at least 14 million girls around the world are married by age 18—that is, as children. After many years of hard work by researchers and advocates, child marriage is now firmly embedded in the rhetoric of human rights. What we need now is a focused business plan that will ensure successful results.

Despite girls being highlighted far and wide in conferences and communications, the poorest girls in the poorest communities are not yet receiving the necessary on-the-ground resources to avoid forced sex inside and outside of marriage. Child marriage not only violates their human rights and endangers their health, but often also anchors them in poverty.

What can we do to move from well-meaning dialogue and diffuse efforts to actions that actually make a difference?

First, we must use the right type of data to invest in the right girls in the right places: sub-national as opposed to national, and broken out so that the percentage of girls married under age 15 is highlighted—not just the proportion married under 18. The Population Council has conducted an analysis to identify where child marriage hotspots exist and where more investment is needed. We identified 113 hotspots in 27 countries where 15% or more of girls (as high as 58% in Zinder, Niger) are married when they are younger than 15.

Early interventions including schooling are needed—interventions that take into account the economic forces driving child marriage, such as money exchanges that may generate emergency cash for families but effectively turn girls into commodities.

While all child marriages are heinous, it is the girls married under the age of 15 that have the gravest measured health consequences. Current youth policies theoretically begin at age 15—far too late to help these girls. Thus explicit gender-differentiated investment policies for those 10–14 years old must be part of a sustained program to eliminate child marriage. This policy must be articulated and executed at the national and local level. At this stage, the best advocacy is real programs that reach real girls in real places.