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The economic and human costs of child marriage – and what we can do about them

January 15, 2012, Ayva Niva, Ethiopia - Curious youth from Ayva Niva, Ethiopia, look on as ICRW staff and those of partner agency CARE Ethiopia visit the village to meet with participants of the TESFA project. Launched in October 2011 after a one year pilot, TESFA seeks to use economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive health trainings to improve the lives of adolescent girls.

Child marriage is costing the world trillions of dollars. We’ve known for decades that child marriage – defined as a formal or informal union in which one or both parties are under 18 – has an enormous cost for girls. It ends their childhoods, their education and often compromises their health and economic well-being. But new research from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and the World Bank demonstrates that there are also huge economic costs for societies worldwide.

ICRW has found that using economic modelling to calculate the cost of so-called “women’s issues” can be extraordinarily effective at drawing policymakers’ attention. This helps to spur investment in solutions to human rights abuses affecting women and girls.  After years of work documenting the practice of child marriage and demonstrating proven solutions to end it, it was time for us to make the economic case for action. We developed a global estimate of costs. Our costing work on maternal mortality and gender-based violence (GBV) helped make a larger macroeconomic case for investment. More recently, we have taken a closer look at country-level costs for several countries where child marriage is common.

Photo credit: David Snyder / ICRW

Putting research to the test

I’ve just returned from three of these countries – Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda – where I was collaborating with Girls Not Brides members, other advocates and allies eager to understand our findings and use them in their efforts to end child marriage in their home countries.

During workshops held with members from each country, we discussed data specific to their country as well as the global figures. In Uganda, where there is a strong Girls Not Brides National Partnership conducting advocacy with the government, participants used our findings to craft short, compelling pitches for key decision-makers. During the sessions, participants found statistics – like the fact that Uganda could have generated $2.7 billion in annual benefits, had they ended child marriage – particularly useful in crafting compelling pitches. In Ethiopia, workshop participants were shocked to learn that ending child marriage could reduce the country’s dependence on overseas development assistance by a sixth, and they chose to highlight this finding in their efforts to end child marriage.

Photo credit: S. Pereira / ICRW

Not losing sight of the human cost: stories that matter

These numbers certainly are compelling, but participants also emphasized what ICRW believes deeply: that we cannot only talk about child marriage in economic terms. We must also talk about the human cost of the practice for the girls who experience it. Participants told me stories of girls they worked with who had faced child marriage and been forced into abusive relationships they felt they couldn’t escape. Their powerful stories align with the growing body of evidence that suicide and maternal deaths are leading causes of death for girls 15-19. ICRW’s own research shows that child marriage has negative impacts on mental health, as well – particularly for girls who marry before age 15.

UNICEF recently estimated that 25 million child marriages have been prevented in the last decade, and that instead of one in four girls marrying as children, one in five girls do so today. One in five is still far too many, and greater investments are necessary if we are to continue and expand this progress.

Photo credit: G. Gustafson / ICRW

Beyond numbers and stories: solutions that work

ICRW’s research supports solutions to child marriage in the following areas:

  1. Empower girls with information, skills and support networks;
  2. Provide economic support and incentives to girls and their families;
  3. Educate parents and community members;
  4. Enhance girls’ access to a high-quality education; and
  5. Encourage supportive laws and policies.

But we can’t do this alone. Together, we can paint both a human and an economic picture of child marriage. And together, we can end the practice once and for all.