That’s the sad reality for girls in the following 26 countries, where data reveal they have a greater chance of getting married before age 18 than enrolling in secondary school, let alone completing it. For them, “for better or worse” becomes overwhelmingly worse. “For richer, for poorer” is decidedly poorer. They are, in essence, being forced to take vows of poverty. As a result, their countries are saddled with a devastating deficit — in opportunities for girls.
We count down these 26 countries, from those with the smallest such deficit to those with the largest. In some of these places, communities are making great strides in delaying marriage for girls and opening more doors to quality education. They offer hope — and may not be on this list much longer. Other countries, however, show little progress. They are home to some of the most difficult living circumstances on earth, especially for girls.
Read our full report to learn more about the causes of child marriage, the barriers to girls’ education and the steps you can take to help shorten — and one day eliminate — this list. Or, take action now, so that all girls, regardless of where they are born, can reach their full potential.
Unless otherwise indicated, the photographs in this report are representative in nature and should not imply that their subjects are or were child brides or that they are not enrolled in school.
Lack of legal protections to prohibit child marriage and an educational system that discriminates against girls are just two of the reasons that Tanzania has a large number of child brides. While boys cannot legally wed in Tanzania until they are 18, girls can legally marry at 15 with consent from parents or guardians. Many schools impose mandatory pregnancy testing. The government in mainland Tanzania allows schools to expel or exclude married students or students who commit offenses “against morality,” widely understood to include pregnancy. Passing government-mandated scholastic tests are required for students to move into secondary school. Failing them often leaves girls vulnerable to early marriage. There is hope, however, that Tanzania may not be on a list like this for long. The Tanzanian government is reviewing laws and rules that tolerate early marriage. Child advocates also are pushing the country to criminalize marital rape and other violence.
Afghanistan makes this list in spite of 2009 legislation that criminalized forced marriage. Human Rights Watch says an estimated 2,000 Afghan women and girls attempt suicide each year by setting themselves on fire, acts often linked to domestic violence and/or forced marriage. Families struggling to cover school costs often send their sons to school before their daughters. And a CARE analysis of more than 1,000 attacks on schools between 2006 and 2008 found that girls’ education was targeted more than boys’. It’s no wonder that girls are outnumbered in school three to one by boys.
While Sierra Leone has a long way to go in protecting girls from early marriage, the country has made impressive gains since a civil war ended there in 2002. The child marriage rate dropped significantly, from 56 percent in 2006 to 44 percent in 2010. And from 2005 to 2007, the average age at which girls married increased from 15 to 17. This was the biggest gain of all West African nations.
Bangladesh has the highest child marriage rate outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and about 30 percent of its girls are married at 15 or younger. Driving much of the problem are poverty, social norms that devalue girls and lax enforcement of laws forbidding child marriage. Violent weather exacerbated by climate change in some parts of the country can drive even more girls to marry early. As some poor families lose their farms to floods and mudslides, they marry their girls early to limit the number of mouths to feed and, in their view, ensure a more stable future for their daughters
Uganda’s experience is a case study in the strong, yet complex, ties between child marriage, poverty and school dropout rates. In Uganda, education appears to play a big role in protecting girls from the dangers of early marriage and childbirth. For example, two-thirds of unschooled girls in Uganda are married at age 18 or younger, while about only one in seven girls who have completed secondary education is married young.
Girls in Malawi are encouraged by local customs to engage in sex at an early age, so many drop out of school after they get pregnant. A report by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health describes a custom in which men have sex with girls as part of a rite of passage so they can determine whether the girls are “really grown up.” But these harmful traditions are now meeting fierce resistance — sometimes from the girls themselves — renewing hope that the tide is finally turning against child marriage. Under pressure from a girl-led movement, the Malawi parliament earlier this year adopted a new law raising the age of marriage to 18.
Because many teenage girls suffer female genital mutilation and then are forced to marry early, girls are doubly devalued in Mali. A traditional cultural belief is that cutting girls in this way makes them more desirable for marriage because they will be more likely to obey their husbands. Marriage, often to older men, can end any hope of living freely or of breaking a cycle of poverty and violence. Adolescent girls in rural Mali have long journeyed to the capital of Bamako, many seeking employment as domestic servants. Few ever return to a classroom. To make matters worse, armed conflict that broke out in northern Mali in 2012 subjected more girls to violence and created another barrier to education.
Because many Ethiopian girls start school late, they often marry before completing primary school. Very few young brides return to the classroom. The problem is particularly acute in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, where one-third of the girls are married by age 15, in spite of successful government-led efforts to reduce child marriage there. Complementary efforts to improve sexual and reproductive health for married and widowed teens show promise. A project called TESFA, for example, reached more than 5,000 girls with not only improved health but with education and financial literacy skills. The girls reported increases in school attendance and felt more valued in their households and communities. During the project — which also engaged gatekeepers such as fathers, husbands, in-laws and religious leaders — communities stopped at least 180 child marriages.
Mozambique’s life expectancy is only 50. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the world, as are its rates of HIV infection among young people. Girls sometimes serve as currency, with impoverished families marrying them off in exchange for livestock. Even if girls do enroll in school, malnutrition sometimes hinders their ability to learn, especially during the “hungry season” before harvest. Too many girls in Mozambique find themselves trapped in a cycle of poor childhood health, early marriage and early childbirth.
Conflict and civil war in this east African nation lead to instability for all, but girls often pay the highest price. Parents who might otherwise value education sometimes keep their daughters home to protect them from violence — or marry them to an older man who they hope will protect and provide for them. Another barrier to school attendance is a lack of sanitary towels, according to UNICEF, which can lead to embarrassment and a lack of confidence, resulting in poor class performance, poor transition to the next level, sporadic school attendance and high dropout rates.
Niger has the highest percentage of child brides in the world. And, according to the U.N.’s Human Development Index, it is the world’s least-developed country. This is no coincidence. In some regions, such as Zinder and Maradi, 9 out of 10 girls marry before age 18. A harsh climate only exacerbates the problem. Less rain often means more “drought brides,” as families pursue early marriage as a survival strategy, seeking one less mouth to feed and bride price money to buy food. Niger also has one of the globe’s highest population growth rates — girls who drop out of school seldom have an opportunity to learn about sexual and reproductive health. Only 4.4 percent of girls age 15 to 19 have access to or use contraception in Niger. Women in Niger are, however, banding together to reverse some of these trends. Many are starting small businesses through Village Savings and Loan Associations that form the foundation of a national movement called Mata Masu Dubara (Women on the Move), converting the women’s increased financial power into political power. The hope is that as women gain a greater voice, in their homes and in their communities, they can break the cycle of child marriage and poverty while giving more girls an opportunity to go to school and, one day, attain a better future.
Read our full report to learn more about the causes of child marriage, the barriers to girls’ education and the steps you can take to help shorten —and one day eliminate — this list.