Child Marriage Has A Staggering Global Cost

by JR Thorpe
Allison Joyce/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Child marriage is an unfortunate reality for a vast amount of women around the world, particularly in developing countries. The International Center for Research On Women estimates that around one third of women in the developing world are married before they turn 18, one in nine is married before the age of 15, and 15 million girls a year become child brides. That works out as one every two seconds. But what's the global cost of child marriage, of putting so many young girls into a legal position that deprives them of choice and economic power, exposes them to violence and sexual assault, and entrenches cycles of disadvantage? A new study has tallied it up, and the results are devastating.

The study comes as statistics on child marriage across the world are, in fact, improving. One in four women worldwide were married in childhood versus one in three in the 1980s, according to UNICEF, while women who were under 15 at marriage now make up 8 percent of the total female population, down from 12 percent. But the shift isn't occurring fast enough. The cost of girl brides to human dignity, women's rights and the opportunities of vulnerable children is obvious. Figuring out the financial implications on top of the emotional and psychological cost of child marriage, though, has been difficult to quantify. However, for the first time, we're beginning to see just how bad they can be.

Myths About Child Brides

It's a common fallacy that child marriage is restricted to the developing world. It's true that a majority of child marriages do occur in developing countries: Almost half of all child brides living today are from South Asia, according to UNICEF, and Niger has the highest rate of under-18 marriage, while Bangladesh has the dishonor of seeing 73 percent of its under-15 female population married as children. However, countries worldwide are affected by bleakly high numbers of underage marriages, usually of young girls marrying much older men.

States across the United States, for example, often don't have explicit laws against child marriage, and will allow children and teens to marry adults if certain preconditions, like parental permission, are met. The Tahirih Justice Center published statistics in 2015 that revealed over 200,000 children and teens across the United States had been married since 2000. Australian cases of child welfare calls to helplines about child marriage doubled between 2015 and 2016. The EU has also experienced problems with child brides coming to European countries as refugees with their husbands, prompting concerns about welfare and protection for vulnerable girls who may have children of their own.

It's also false to assume that all the burden for child marriage is to be placed on particular religions. The Council for Foreign Relations points out that various sects within religions worldwide disagree vehemently on child marriage; for example, Ethiopian child marriage is thought to be part of Orthodox Christianity, a view not followed by many other Orthodox Christian churches, while ultra-conservative Muslims following a version of Sharia law argue for child marriage in direct opposition to other interpretations of Islam.

Religion is also only one part of the complex structures that create child marriage. The organization Girls Not Brides explains that cultural traditions, patriarchal beliefs and serious poverty are also strong motivators. PLAN International also notes that young brides are seen as more obedient than older ones and have smaller dowries, and that families with young girls can believe that an early marriage will protect their child from sexual violence, despite evidence to the contrary.

What Does Child Marriage Cost, Financially?

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.