It's a sad fact of contemporary society that you can often only indicate the seriousness and scale of a situation by turning to how it will help — or hurt — the economy. And in the case of child marriage, finding hard-hitting statistics on how it disadvantages people and countries financially has been hard, until now. In June, the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women released the first global attempt to quantify the costs of child marriage, and the numbers rapidly scale beyond the human imagination.
In the report, it's estimated that the world could save up to $4 trillion by 2030 by ending child marriage, representing both smaller government expenditures and more economic wealth for women themselves. Getting to that number involves a lot of complex number-crunching, but the statisticians looked at five different areas in which child marriage creates serious problems: population growth, health and nutrition, education, the labor force, and participation in the world. And in all of them, the financial cost of child marriage showed itself to be significant.
Women who marry young, as compared to those who don't, are inclined to have more children (an average of 26 percent more), to have higher rates of HIV and illness, to die in childbirth, to be exposed to partner violence, to experience higher infant mortality, to be prevented from going to school or getting a job, and to be unable to be economically independent and have savings or land, according to the study. All of these factors represent a separate economic cost. Many (such as healthcare) represent costs to governments who have to provide help and support, but others represent hidden costs to the economy (not having female workers, for instance), and of course, to the women themselves.
"The global economic costs associated with the impacts of child marriage on fertility and population growth, children’s health, and education are particularly large," the writers of the report, led by Quentin Wodon of the World Bank and Suzanne Petroni of the International Center, noted. Stopping the population growth engendered by the higher fertility rates of child marriage would, they estimate, have a global benefit of $22 billion in 2015 and $566 billion in 2030. And if women in the worst 15 countries in the world for child marriage had instead married later, they estimate, the world would have gained $26 billion in earnings and productivity.
The impacts of stamping out child marriage would be particularly felt by poor women and girls. Poverty is a big factor for families when child marriage is concerned; the International Center determined, in separate research, that the rate of child marriage in poor households is twice as high as in high income households. Child marriage keeps women poor: It deprives them of education, often means they can't work (either because of domestic responsibilities or labor laws against minors working), places them in the power of adults who exert financial control, and creates a cycle of women in poverty raising children in poverty. Removing child marriage from that equation would raise the likelihood of more empowered, wealthier, more educated women significantly.
To most campaigners, the numbers are irrelevant. The human rights violation of forcing young girls into marriages are sufficient to argue for the end of the practice forever. But the sheer weight of a $4 trillion price tag might get people who would otherwise be inclined to dismiss this as a "minor" issue, or something that only happens in 'other places', to listen.