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Unhappily ever after

Slow and uneven progress in the fight against early marriage

Nearly one-third of all girls in the developing world marry before adulthood. More than one-tenth marries before 15 years. Early marriage is particularly entrenched in sub- Saharan Africa and South Asia, but trends vary significantly across and within countries. The consequences of early marriage are enormous in terms of foregone educational and economic opportunities; maternal morbidity and mortality; more limited voice and power within the family and community; life-course and inter-generational poverty transfers. While poverty plays a key role in marriage decisions, discriminatory social norms that value girls primarily in terms of their reproductive capacities are critical to understanding early marriage.

The interplay of economic and social drivers of early marriage differ between communities, regions and countries; there is therefore no single strategy which is likely to end the practice. A combination of community awareness-raising, support for girls’ secondary education, economic strengthening initiatives and legal empowerment for girls and women needs to be considered, but designed with an in-depth understanding of the local culture and context to avoid generating negative or unforeseen consequences.