Blog post

Child marriage: Why does it happen and what can we do?

5 min read
2 Jul 2014

Over the past two weeks I have interned at Giving What We Can and conducted research on the problem of child marriage. This blog post offers a summary of my report, detailing my main findings and overall impression of the problem. I focus on child marriage’s destructive effects and some promising interventions.


The problem.

An estimated ten [1] to fourteen [2] million girls - females aged under eighteen - are newly married each year. According to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund, by 2021 there will be over fifteen million newly married girls each year [3] Child marriage is a leading impediment to achieving six out of eight Millennium Development Goals [4].


Child marriage is clearly complex, but we can understand the two main causes in terms of economics and culture. Giovanna Lauro and Margaret E. Greene explain:

In low-income families, the lack of economic alternatives contributes to the practice, as marriage to an older man may be seen as bringing economic security – for the girl and sometimes for her entire family. […] In a broader sense, the acceptance of marrying a girl as a child is part of a cluster of social norms and attitudes that do not value the human rights of girls [5].


Mabel Van Oranje of Girls Not Brides insists that child marriage is the key to addressing a whole cluster of issues, from education, maternal death and infant mortality to the spread of HIV, gender inequality and poverty [6]. And the evidence backs her up.

For instance, a twenty-nine country study on the effects of child marriage on education found that:

[A] woman's age at first marriage is positively related to her total years of schooling; in all 29 countries, women who married when they were 18 or older had more education than those who married at a younger age. The starkest difference was in Nigeria, where women who were at least 18 when they married achieved, on average, 9.3 years of schooling, while those who married before they were 18 remained in school for only 2.5 years [7].

By abruptly ending a girl’s education, child marriage also increases child mortality rates. A cross-national study showed that:

In 9 countries the highest rates [of child mortality] occurred among mothers with no education. […] Education of mother, followed by education of her husband and his occupation were generally the strongest explanatory variables [8].

A further major cross-national study estimated the impact of education on fertility, estimating that "doubling female secondary school enrollment (from 19 to 38 percent) in 1975 would have reduced the total fertility rate in 1985 from 5.3 to 3.9." [9].

Education also makes girls "considerably less likely to die in childbirth and thereby orphan their children with deleterious consequences." [10].

Child marriage’s bad economic effects through ending education is similarly well-established [11]. Strong evidence also exists concerning its impact on domestic and sexual violence [12], child welfare [13] and women’s political activity [14].


Fortunately, effective interventions to prevent child marriage do exist.

For instance, programs that empower girls with information, skills and support networks to enable self-advocacy are promising [15]. An Ethiopian program called Berhane Hewan did this, and participants were nearly three times more likely to be in school than non-program participants, and were 90 percent less likely to be married [16].

Also promising are programs that provide economic support and incentives to girls and their families to keep them in education rather than marrying early. The Zomba Cash Transfer tried this approach, and participants were 40 percent less likely to marry after one year than girls in the control group [17]. This intervention is particularly interesting because it is simple and scalable.


Less fortunately, I have been unable to identify any promising charities that work in this area. One reason for this is that child marriage is worked on primarily by private foundations such as Nike and Ford, and states like India.

Most prominent is the Global Giving Foundation, which manages donations to The Girl Effect Fund, which in turn funds twelve different projects. These projects empower girls with information and skills to enable self-advocacy. In this respect they resemble the successful Berhane Hewan program. However, none of the projects involve the conditional cash transfers which were found to be promising. It is also unclear how transparent the programs are, whether they track their effectiveness and whether they do more than only indicate how donations could be spent.


Still, it seems that child marriage as a cause overcomes two out of three hurdles. The problem is certainly significant enough, and effective interventions exist. If good charities working to prevent child marriage can be found, such charities should be taken seriously as giving opportunities for now or in the future.

Further reading.


  1. Santhya, K. G. and Annabel Erulkar. 2007. ‘Supporting Married Girls: Calling Attention to a Neglected Group’, Population Council. 1.
  2. Girls Not Brides: What is the impact?
  3. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2012. "Marrying too young: end child marriage." 6.
  4. Girls Not Brides: What is the impact?
  5. Lauro, Giovanna; Margaret E. Greene. 2013. "Child Marriage: A ‘Universal’ Issue."
  6. YouTube: The girl effect: The ripple effect of ending child marriage.
  7. Clark, S, J Bruce and A Dude. 2006. ‘Protecting Young Women from HIV/AIDS: The Case Against Child and Adolescent Marriage,’ International Family Planning Perspectives 32(2): 79-88.
  8. Hobcraft, J.N., J.W. McDonald and S.O. Rutstein. 1984. Socioeconomic factors in infant and child mortality: a cross-national comparison. Population Studies 38,2:193-223.
  9. Subbarao, K., and Laura Rainey. 1995. "Social Gains from Female Education." Economic Development and Cultural Change 44 (1): 105–28.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Chaaban, Jad and Wendy Cunningham, 2011. ‘Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls: the girl effect dividend’, World Bank.
  12. Erulkar, A. 2013. Early Marriage, Marital Relations and Intimate Partner Violence in Ethiopia. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 39(1) (March): 6-13; Santhya, K., Ram,U., Acharya, R., Jejeebhoy, S., Ram, F., & Singh, A. 2010. Associations Between Early Marriage and Young Women's Marital and Reproductive Health Outcomes: Evidence from India. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 36(3), 132-139. New York, NY: Population Council.
  13. Bicego, George T., and J. Ties Boerma. 1993. "Maternal Education and Child Survival: A Comparative Study of Survey Data from 17 Countries." Social Science and Medicine 36 (9): 1207–27.
  14. Levine, Ruth et al. 2009. Girls Count: A Global Investment and Action Agenda. 20.
  15. My categories are from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) & Girls Not Brides, 2013. "Solutions to end child marriage: summary of the evidence." 2.
  16. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2012. "Marrying too young: end child marriage." 54.
  17. ICRW. 2011. Solutions to End Child Marriage: What the Evidence Shows. 18.