Causes, Consequences, and Prevention of Forced and Early Marriage

Last updated July 2019


There are multiple factors contribute to the prevalence of forced and early marriage, including lack of quality education for girls, systemic and inter-generational poverty, and humanitarian crises resulting from natural disasters or conflicts. The prevalence of forced and early marriage itself is a cause, as long-term practice may lead communities to view the practice as normal because “everybody does it.”[1]


Studies have indicated that the level of education that a girl receives seems to be directly correlated with the likelihood that she will be married before she is 18. Girls who have no education are three times more likely than girls with at least a secondary education to marry when they are still children, whereas girls with only a primary education are twice as likely to marry before they are 18 as girls with at least secondary education. [2] Further, girls are still at an increased risk of early marriage if she does receive an education but that education lacks quality or if the school grapples with overcrowding or underqualified teachers.[3]


Over 50 percent of girls in the poorest 20 percent of households are married when they are children, compared to 16 percent of girls from the richest 20 percent of households. [4] High rates of poverty can make early marriage seem like valid choice for girls’ families. In 2014, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights discovered that “in many communities, marriage is often perceived as a way to ensure the economic subsistence of girls and women with no autonomous access to productive resources and living in situations of extreme poverty.”[5] The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) found that “many parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ futures and that it is in their best interests.” [6] Additionally, as girls may not be able to obtain paid employment, they may be viewed by their families as an economic burden, which also may prompt parents to marry off their daughters when they are still children.

Humanitarian Crises

Financial instability and sexual violence are prevalent in humanitarian crises. In a 2012 report, the UNFPA noted, “In times of conflict and natural disaster, parents may marry off their young daughters as a last resort, either to bring the family some income in time of economic hardship, or to offer the girl some sort of protection, particularly in contexts where sexual violence is common.”[7]


Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Forced and child marriages are generally marriages where, from the outset, husbands hold a disproportionate amount of control over their wives. In these situations, “girls and young women often face physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence, and restrictions on their movement.”[8] A 2017 study of child marriage in 34 countries revealed that women ages 20–24 who married as children were more likely to report that their husbands had been physically or sexually violent in the past year than women the same age who had married as adults.[9]

Maternal Health & Obstetric Fistula           

Girls subject to early and forced marriage often face pressures to prove their fertility, and 90 percent of adolescent girls who give birth are already married.[10] Additionally, pregnancy during adolescence is correlated with increased maternal health risks and decreased positive birth outcomes. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that “complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries.”[11]

In particular, pregnant girls are at an increased risk of developing an obstetric fistula.[12] Obstetric fistula is an abnormal hole between a woman’s vagina and her bladder or rectum, which causes chronic incontinence, and is most commonly caused by prolonged labor which is more prevalent among adolescents who give birth.[13] Up to 95 percent of obstetric fistulas can be repaired with a simple surgery, however many young mothers cannot access surgery due to a lack of resources.[14]

Economic Impact

Forced and child marriage has a profound impact on the women and girls subjected to the practice, their children, and the community as a whole. The global partnership Girls Not Brides has complied a report, documenting the numerous ways in which forced and child marriage has negative economic impacts; including higher rates of fertility leading to larger families with fewer resources per person and reduced future earning potential as girls who married when they were children are less likely to complete their education.[15]


Forced and early marriages are widespread, yet many local efforts to prevent these marriages have been successful. Crisis lines, women’s shelters, schools, groups or clubs for girls, and even monetary incentives have all proved effective in postponing marriages for girls and helping to stop forced marriages.

In an effort prevent early and child marriage, the UNFPA and the U.N. International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have develop a program comprising of five evidence-based tactics in order to create large-scale systems change:

  1. Build the skills and knowledge of girls at risk of child marriage, and married girls.
  2. Support households in demonstrating positive attitudes towards adolescent girls.
  3. Strengthen the systems that deliver services to adolescent girls.
  4. Ensure that laws and policies protect and promote adolescent girls’ rights.
  5. Generate and use robust data to inform programmes and policies relating to adolescent girls.[16]

Such programs have emboldened girls to take action on their own behalf. In several instances a victim’s classmates, after hearing of a forced or early marriage of a peer, have lobbied against it and even sent petitions to local law enforcement.[17]

[1] Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Preventing and Eliminating Child, Early and Forced Marriage, ¶ 19, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/26/22(Apr. 2, 2014).

[2] UNFPA, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage 34 (2012).

[3] OHCHR, Preventing and Eliminating Child, Early and Forced Marriage, ¶ 18.

[4] UNFPA, Marrying Too Young,  at 35.

[5] OHCHR, Preventing and Eliminating Child, Early and Forced Marriage, ¶ 17.

[6] UNFPA, Marrying Too Young, at 12.

[7] Id.

[8] OHCHR, Preventing and Eliminating Child, Early and Forced Marriage, ¶ 21.

[9] Rachel Kidman, Child Marriage and Intimate Partner Violence: A Comparative Study of 34 Countries, 46 Int’l J. Epidemiology 662, 672 (2017).

[10] Girls Not Brides, Child Marriage and Maternal Health 2 (2018).

[11] Press Release, Every Woman Every Where et al, Child Marriages: 39,000 Every Day (Mar. 7, 2013),

[12] Girls Not Brides, Child Marriage and Maternal Health 3 (2018).

[13] 10 Facts about Obstetric Fistula, World Health Organization (Jan. 2018),

[14] Id.

[15] Girls not Brides, Economic Impact of Child Marriage: An Information Sheet (2018).

[16] UNFPA & UNICEF, 2017 Annual Report: Accelerating and Amplifying Change 12 (2018).

[17] See, e.g., Child Wedding ‘Stopped by Pupils’, BBCNews (July 13, 2007),