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Child Marriage FAQ

It can be hard to imagine why someone would choose to marry off a child. But for millions of people around the world, child marriage can seem like the best and sometimes the only option. To better understand why, here are answers to some of our most common questions:

1. What is child marriage?

Child marriage refers to any marriage or union in which one or both parties are minors under the age of 18. Around the world, child marriage most often involves girls being married to older men.


2. How common is child marriage?

Globally, about 1 in 5 women and girls alive today (about 650 million in total) were married before their 18th birthday. Every year, an additional 12 million girls are married as children — that’s 22 girls every minute, or about 1 every 3 seconds.

In Kenya’s remote Narok County, where our programs primarily operate, 1 in 2 girls are married before the age of 19 — more than twice the national rate.


3. Is child marriage legal in Kenya?

No. Under the Marriage Act of 2014, the minimum legal age of marriage in Kenya is 18. This law, in part, led to a 10% drop in the national rate of child marriage between 2014 and 2022. But the practice persists informally, especially in rural communities with weaker legal safeguards and law enforcement. In the communities we serve, 50% of girls are still married before the age of 19.


4. Why does child marriage happen?

At its root, child marriage is the result of gender inequality. It is used to control girls, who are seen as inferior to men, and enforce patriarchal norms regarding obedience, sexuality, and domesticity. However, this basis of inequality works in tandem with material conditions — such as poverty, conflict, and displacement — to make early marriage the only option for many girls and their families.

For instance, since it is common in sub-Saharan Africa for marriages to include a bride price (or a payment made by the groom to the family of the bride), many parents facing economic hardship are forced to marry off their daughters as a source of income. 

In the rural Kenyan communities we serve, child marriage is driven by poverty, retrogressive patriarchal traditions (such as FGM and taboos surrounding unwed pregnancy), as well as limited opportunities for women and girls. Increasing education expands these opportunities and is the most effective way to delay marriage (more info below).


5. Where does child marriage happen?

The global burden of child marriage has historically been centered in South Asia, but is now shifting to sub-Saharan Africa, where progress to end the practice is slower and population growth is higher. Close to 1 in 3 of the world’s newly married child brides now live in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 1 in 7 just 25 years ago.

Child marriage is not unique to developing countries however. A recent study by Unchained at Last found that between 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,000 minors were legally married in the United States. The majority of these marriages were between adolescent girls and adult men.

6. What are consequences of child marriage?

Child marriage robs girls of their autonomy, which has the following long-term consequences:

  • Gender-based violence: Girls married before the age of 15 are 50% more likely to experience physical and/or sexual violence than those married after 18.
  • Adolescent pregnancy: In many developing countries, marriage is tied to child rearing. Child brides are more likely to become pregnant before reaching physical maturity, which increases the risk of complications during childbirth — the leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally.
  • HIV: Child brides are exposed to frequent sexual activity and have limited power to negotiate safe sex, which increases their risk of HIV infection. For every 3 new HIV infections among men and boys aged 15-24, there are 7 among girls and women of the same age.
  • School dropout: Once girls get married, they are often expected to drop out of school and focus on domestic responsibilities. But the link between child marriage and education goes both ways: keeping girls in school is one of the most powerful ways to delay marriage (see below) 


7. What does education have to do with child marriage?

When girls stay in school, they are: empowered to make decisions for themselves, better informed about their health and rights, and free to pursue dreams and careers outside of marriage. They also greatly expand their future earning potential, which can have a ripple effect, as this creates more prosperous families and relieves poverty, a primary driver of child marriage. For these reasons, the likelihood of a girl marrying as a child drops by 6% for every additional additional year she stays in secondary school.

 

8. How does climate change impact child marriage?

Climate change exacerbates the material drivers of child marriage, such as poverty and displacement. Take Kenya’s recent drought, for example, which was a direct result of climate change. Three years of poor rainfall disrupted the livelihoods of farmers and pastoralists across the country, while simultaneously slashing food production. The resulting food insecurity, mass displacement, and economic hardship caused child marriages to double throughout the affected region.

 


9. What is the difference between child, early, and forced marriage?

Child, early, and forced marriage are used interchangeably, often combined under the acronym CEFM. Child marriages are almost always forced marriages, as children cannot give legal consent and are often pressured by poverty and conflict into marriages of necessity.

 


10. Does child marriage affect boys too?

Yes. Boys are about one-sixth as likely as girls to experience child marriage — but that still leaves an estimated 115 million child grooms around the world. In Kenya, about 4% of men (roughly 2 million in total) were married before the age of 18. While girls are the disproportionate victims — comparatively, more than 25% of women in Kenya were married before 18 — all children deserve a childhood. At Kakenya’s Dream, boys are critical to our efforts to end child marriage.

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