The hefty price of child marriage

By Quentin Wodon, Suzanne Petroni 24 November 2015

Girls take part in a safe space session in Zambia, where they learn about how and why to avoid early marriage. Over this past decade, some 140 million girls, most living in the developing world, have married before the age of 18. Photo by: Jessica Lea / DfID / CC BY

Child marriage. It’s a phrase that was barely uttered or understood in the global development community even just 10 years ago. Yet over this past decade, some 140 million girls, most living in the developing world, have married before the age of 18, forcing them to drop out of school and become pregnant before their bodies and minds are ready. Child marriage may also lead to increased intimate partner violence, restricted mobility, limited access to families or friends, and limited ability to engage in their community’s and country’s development.

Now, after years of research documenting the harms that child marriage can bring to girls’ rights, health and welfare, and as a result of advocacy efforts by communities, nongovernmental organizations, development organizations and girls themselves, we have a global commitment to ending this practice in the next 15 years. Indeed, leaders at the United Nations this fall committed to eradicating child marriage through Agenda 2030 (the Sustainable Development Goals), and governments are finally starting to give this harmful practice the attention it deserves.

But the financial investments needed to end the practice fall far behind the need. With very few exceptions, policymakers in both donor and developing countries have not prioritized the action and the investment needed to eradicate this harmful practice.

At the International Center for Research on Women and the World Bank, we know how valuable evidence can be in driving policy and funding decisions. Over the years, our respective institutions have contributed significantly to a growing evidence base documenting the significant social costs associated with child marriage. But evidence on the economic costs of the practice — the type of evidence that could be most persuasive to policymakers — has been lacking. If policymakers understand that child marriage eats up precious resources that could be used elsewhere, they will be more likely to act.

This is the rationale for our collaboration on a three-year research project to understand the economic impacts of child marriage. With the most extensive data collection and analysis ever undertaken on the topic, we will quantify the many costs of child marriage — for families, nations and, eventually, the world.

Here’s some of what our analyses have shown thus far:

1. Our study reinforces what we have long known: child marriage has negative impacts on girls’ education. For each year of early marriage, girls across sub-Saharan Africa are about four percentage points less likely to complete secondary school that those who remain unmarried. The effects are even larger in Latin America and South Asia. Given the strong correlation between education and women’s labor force participation and earnings, these findings suggest strongly that substantial earnings losses result from child marriage.

2. We’ve also long known that child marriage has significant impacts on fertility. Child brides not only bear children earlier, but have more children over their lifetime than women who marry after the age of 18. Yet the magnitude of the effects on economies may be larger than we thought. In Pakistan, for example, ending child marriage would reduce total fertility rates by about 10 percent. High fertility yields very large welfare costs for families by reducing their standard of living. It also generates significant costs to national economies through the demands for basic services posed by ever larger populations.

Given that child marriage rates are highest in some of the fastest growing countries in the world, the reduced pace of population growth that could result from eradicating child marriage and associated adolescent births is probably the single largest beneficial contribution that ending the practice can have on poor households and national economies.

Looking at the combined effects of welfare costs, earnings losses and the costs of social services, child marriage is likely to have tremendously high economic costs at the national level. In Niger, for example, which has the highest child marriage rates in the world, our preliminary estimates indicate that just through three channels — welfare benefits from reduced population growth, better educational outcomes for girls, and lower costs for the public provision of education up to the secondary level — eliminating child marriage could lead to benefits valued at more than $25 billion (in purchasing power parity terms) between 2014 and 2030. These benefits would be tremendously beneficial toward alleviating the country’s deep poverty.

Our study won’t be complete for another year, but the evidence we are already generating is solid enough to tell us that, in addition to the harmful effects on girls’ health, education, rights and well-being — the economic impacts of child marriage from the individual to the national levels are likely to be very significant. As such, and as leaders from the African Union gather next week to mobilize action toward ending child marriage, we call on global leaders to invest in ending this harmful practice. It is not only the right thing to do, but it is also a strategic investment in the current and future economic and human development of nations.

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About the authors

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Quentin Wodon

Quentin Wodon is a lead economist in the Education Global Practice at the World Bank. He has also held roles at Procter & Gamble and the International Movement ATD Fourth World, and taught at universities in Belgium and the U.S. He has more than 400 publications, holds Ph.D.s in economics and theology and religious studies, and is actively involved in pro bono work with nonprofits.


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Suzanne Petroni@suzp

Suzanne Petroni is the senior director for gender, population and development at the International Center for Research on Women, where, since 2012, she has led the organization’s work to improve development programs and policies by expanding the evidence base regarding the relationships between gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights, adolescence and demographic and socio-economic outcomes.


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