EU must do more to prevent child marriage

Child marriage is a humanitarian urgency, it should be higher on our list of priorities, writes Madi Sharma

By Madi Sharma

29 Sep 2015

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has projected that more than 140 million girls will have become child brides by 2020. According to UNICEF, if current levels of child marriages hold, 14.2 million girls annually or 39,000 daily will marry under the age of 18. Furthermore, of these 140 million girls, 50 million will be under the age of 15.  

Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects. A crime committed under the veil of religion, society, poverty, war and lack of education. A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled.

Girls married young are more vulnerable to violence from intimate partners and sexual abuse than those who marry later.


Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15-19.

Young girls who marry later and delay pregnancy beyond their adolescence have more chances to stay healthy, to improve their education and build a better life for themselves and their families.

In Afghanistan, 53 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18. While the country banned the practice in 2009, advocates remain concerned about the effectiveness of such measures, which often go unenforced in the developing world.

Of particular concern is the restoration of the Taliban following the withdrawal of the US-backed forces. With the Taliban in power, the position of women and young girls in Afghanistan is dramatically deteriorating, rolling back the progress of recent years.

According to a recent survey of women between the ages of 25 and 49 by Human Rights Watch and a 2010 mortality by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, 53 per cent were married by the age of 18, while 12 per cent of Afghan girls aged 15-19 became pregnant or gave birth. Almost half of the deaths in women aged 20-24 were associated with pregnancy.

The survey  found that one Afghan woman died every two hours because of pregnancy.

The 2010 mortality survey found a higher mortality rate among children born to Afghan mothers under age 20 compared to those born to older mothers. Children born as a result of child marriages also suffer increased health risks.

The devastation that followed the earthquake in Nepal has also made young girls more susceptible to exploitation.

According to the organization Girls Not Brides, Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 41 per cent of girls married before the age of 18. Child marriage is more common in rural areas (54 per cent) than urban areas (41 per cent), with rates particularly high in the hilly and mountainous regions. Within certain ethnic groups, the marriage rates before 15 can be as high as 83 per cent.

The EU needs to make this issue a priority of its development agenda.

It needs to put forward a policy that will provide incentives for countries to protect young girls from exploitation and ban child marriages.

At the same time the EU should fund organisations on the ground that will protect these young girls and women and reposition them within society.

Education, psychological support and shelters are fundamental in this fight in realising the targets set by the international community for gender equality and the empowerment of women and young girls.

Read the most recent articles written by Madi Sharma - Adopting a gender-sensitive lens in global security