Strategy Brief: Ending Early Marriage

What is early marriage?

Early marriage is a global human rights crisis with profound consequences on girls’ health, opportunities, and freedoms. The practice perpetuates and arises from deeply ingrained beliefs maintaining the inferior status of girls and women. Cutting across countries, religions, cultures, and ethnicities, early marriage persists in spite of national laws and government interventions.

In many regions, it is the norm. If current trends continue, by the end of this decade 142 million girls will be married as minors. In South Asia, nearly half of young women are married before age 18. Early marriage occurs when a girl is married before she is legally, physically, or emotionally a woman. It means a very early start to a series of human rights violations and deprivations with lifelong impact. The practice leads to domestic and sexual violence, reproductive health problems,
physical and mental trauma, STIs including HIV, and death. It exacts a steep price from families, communities, and societies in terms of lost human potential.

Now is the time for action.

The world’s attention has never been more focused on gender equality and the rights of women and girls. Let’s seize this moment to make early marriage unacceptable and build a world in which all people enjoy their human rights and reach their full potential.

Ending early marriage requires deep culture change.

Ending early marriage requires understanding—and going to the deepest roots of—the culture in which it persists, as well as applying a framework of gender rights and human rights. Our formative research and resulting interventions, focused on two areas of India where early marriage rates
are particularly high, yield the following recommendations for preventing early marriage.

early marriage numbers

The Breakthrough Solution

1. Change the culture. Engage decision-makers and gatekeepers, parents, teachers, community groups, and government officials, whose collective changes in belief and actions are visible and powerful enough to transform community norms.
2. Focus on men and boys—especially fathers—as leaders of change. Fathers and male elders make most early marriage decisions. It is essential to enlist them—and younger men around them—to stand for gender equality in communities.
3. Help girls stay in school. Education can be a powerful tool for delaying marriage. But to truly transform gender norms, we must push for safe, high-quality schools that enable girls to complete their educations and build new futures.
4. Address adolescent sexuality and rights—for both girls and boys. Early marriage is fueled by fear and stigma. Young women and men are not free to explore healthy sexuality; marriage is thought to shield girls from sexual harassment and assault. Challenging these norms creates the environment for deep, sustainable change.
5. Improve public safety for women to diminish a key motivation for early marriage: the threat of harassment. We must enable communities to increase women’s mobility and freedom.
6. Challenge inheritance laws. Inheritance laws overwhelmingly favor sons. This contributes to gender inequality in families and communities.
7. Address “adulthood.” Perceptions of maturity influence marriage, especially where the concept of “adolescence” does not exist. Invite families and communities to create healthier norms around what being “ready” for marriage really means.
8. Call it “early marriage.” Using the term “early” rather than “child” marriage expands our capacity to characterize those it affects as young people with sexuality and sexual rights—and allows us to emphasize their full agency and personhood.

Download early marriage strategy brief here.