New Findings on Child Marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa
Despite increasing global attention and commitments by countries to end the harmful practice of child marriage, each year some 15 million girls marry before the age of 18. The preponderance of the evidence produced historically on child marriage comes from South Asia, where the vast majority of child brides live. Far less attention has been paid to child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, where prevalence rates remain high. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) recently conducted research in Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia to contribute to greater understanding of the drivers of child marriage in each of these contexts. Synthesizing findings from 4 diverse countries provides a useful opportunity to identify similarities and differences, as well as understandings that may be applicable to and helpful for preventing child marriage across these and other settings.
Across the 4 countries, ICRW's research echoes the existing literature base in affirming that child marriage is rooted in inequitable gender norms that prioritize women's roles as wives, mothers, and household caretakers, resulting in inadequate investments by families in girls' education. These discriminatory norms interact closely with poverty and a lack of employment opportunities for girls and young women to perpetuate marriage as a seemingly viable alternative for girls. We found in the African study sites that sexual relations, unplanned pregnancy, and school dropout often precede child marriage, which differs from much of the existing evidence on child marriage from South Asia. Further, unlike in South Asia, where family members typically determine the spouse a girl will marry, most girls in the Africa study settings have greater autonomy in partner choice selection. In Senegal, increasing educational attainment and labor migration, particularly by young women, has contributed to reduced rates of child marriage for girls.
Our findings suggest that improving gender equitable norms and providing more—and more equitable—opportunities for girls, particularly with regard to education and employment, are likely to improve child marriage outcomes. Providing comprehensive sexuality education and youth-friendly reproductive health services can reduce rates of early pregnancy that contribute to child marriage. Finally, identifying ways in which to improve communication between parents and adolescent daughters could go far in ensuring that girls feel valued and that parents feel heard as they make decisions together regarding the lives and opportunities of these adolescent girls.