The young schoolgirl is in the front row of the dusty auditorium. Her feet don’t reach the floor. She swings her thin legs and shifts in the large wooden seat as the presentation to foreign visitors drones on. She could be any child anywhere. There is one notable difference: If her community had not intervened, she would not be a schoolgirl, but a wife.
She lives in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where 50 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 80 percent by age 18. If current trends continue, 100 million girls—some as young as 7 or 8—in the developing world (predominantly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) will be married in the next 10 years.
Motivations for child marriage vary from region to region, and include custom and sometimes religious beliefs. But poverty is almost always a major factor. Sometimes, in a poor family, child marriage is seen as a way to eliminate one mouth to feed. Conversely, sometimes marriage is seen as a means of improving the girl’s or the whole family’s lot, by linking them to a family of greater means.
The cruel irony is that child marriage holds back entire communities in their socioeconomic development. Girls are pulled from school to be married, truncating the skills and options for both the girls and the children they will bear. As the International Center for Research on Women’s report Too Young to Wed puts it, “Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.”