The Lancet Journal
Fazilatun Nessa Indira
Gisèle Ndaya Luseba
Pauline Kedem Tallen
The marriage of a girl child is a violation of her rights and a threat to her ability to thrive. A married girl is usually not in school. She is vulnerable to early pregnancy, with its associated health risks. She undertakes caring responsibilities that are beyond those appropriate for her age. She has lost agency and autonomy in one of the most fundamental life choices—when and whom to marry. This loss of autonomy can continue into disempowerment and loss of rights and well-being for as long as she lives.
The harmful impacts of child marriage are not only experienced at the individual level, but also run across generations because the children of girls who marry in childhood often suffer shortfalls in health and nutrition. These impacts also extend to entire societies, through effects on fertility and population growth, productivity and earnings, and child and maternal health.
Child marriage happens to some degree in most parts of the world (panel). Increasing recognition of its harms, including in perpetuating gender discrimination and inequality, led the international community to agree to eliminate this practice by 2030—a target embedded in the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The countries that we represent as ministers endorsed that SDG target and are determined to reach it. Together, our countries are where a fifth of all child brides globally live. This is a sobering fact and responsibility; the progress made by our countries in addressing child marriage will largely determine whether and how quickly the world will meet the SDG target.
Globally, some advances are already apparent. In the past 10 years, child marriages decreased by 15%, from nearly one in four women who were married as children to one in five. During this period, about 25 million child marriages were averted, sparing girls who would have become child brides if the prevalence of the prior decade had persisted.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and climate change threaten to undo this progress. The COVID-19 pandemic alone is projected to push the number of child brides up by 10 million during the coming decade through drivers such as interrupted education, the death of a parent, and economic shocks.7, 8 Drought, floods, and other climate impacts, together with recurring or protracted humanitarian crises, are depriving entire communities of food, water, and livelihoods. These conditions foster insecurity and exacerbate a longstanding belief that marriage is the only safe haven for girls and a lifeline for their families.
The stakes are high and require immediate action. Broader development imperatives that our countries are already pursuing, including investments in education and strategies to foster economic development, have the potential to reduce child marriage. As our governments continue to seek these development goals, we also recognise that making faster progress in eliminating child marriage demands targeted and multisectoral interventions. With that in mind, we, on behalf of our governments, pledge action on several fronts.
First, we will strive to make economic growth inclusive and to reach poor communities, including those affected by climate change and humanitarian crises. To this effect, we will boost investments that foster productivity in employment-intensive sectors, such as agriculture, and policies that improve conditions for workers in the informal economy. We will also promote gender-responsive social assistance. Social protection schemes that comprise focused relief to families through cash and in-kind transfers have been successful in keeping girls in school and delaying child marriage, with positive long-term implications for girls’ agency and life opportunities.
Second, we will pursue active, inclusive labour market policies that emphasise decent work for women. Families who know that girls will be able to secure good jobs with a reasonable and stable income are more likely to keep them in school. We will also support programmes and policies that recognise, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work, a burden that falls disproportionally on girls and women and compromises their right to education, economic independence, and personal development.
Third, we will invest in quality, universally available and accessible secondary education that builds higher-level skills among girls, instils a distinct sense of personal worth and agency, and facilitates their successful transition to employment.
Fourth, for girls who have already become brides, we will scale up explicit measures to support and empower them, such as through opportunities to continue education, and access to quality health care and protection services.
Fifth, across all our efforts to prevent child marriage, we will tackle harmful gender roles, norms, and power relations. All child marriage interventions, whether to prevent or respond to the practice, should deliberately open doors for girls to gain empowerment and autonomy.
Ending child marriage is a global responsibility. At a moment of profound pressures, including on public budgets, our countries face difficult decisions. But we agree that our priorities must include preventing and responding to child marriage on a scale that brings us to having no more child brides by 2030. All girls deserve protection, respect for their rights and freedoms, and a chance at a life that they choose.
FNI is the Minister of Women and Children Affairs, Government of Bangladesh. GNL is the Minister of Gender, Family and Children, Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ET is the Minister of Women and Social Affairs, Government of Ethiopia. PKT is the Minister of Women Affairs, Government of Nigeria. We declare no competing interests.
The Lancet Journal