“The Stories Behind the Statistics” is a series we developed for the Gates Foundation blog, “Impatient Optimists.” The following post is the first in our series on early marriage. The original post, located on “Impatient Optimists,” is available here.

Every day more than 37,000 girls get married, and if present trends continue, an estimated 15 million girls will become child brides every year beginning in 2021. Early marriage has devastating social and health impacts on adolescent girls. Girls who are married are forced to take on roles for which they are not emotionally and physically prepared. When girls marry at a young age, they often leave their homes, stop attending school, and lose contact with family and friends. Many married adolescents experience domestic and sexual violence. 

For many girls, marriage marks the beginning of their sexual life.  Married adolescents have sex more often than their unmarried peers; are less able to refuse sex or negotiate safe sex; and often have older, more sexually experienced partners — all factors that increase their risk of HIV infection.  Young women are often expected to demonstrate their fertility by becoming pregnant. Many give birth within the first year of marriage when their bodies are not fully matured.  Childbirth- and pregnancy-related complications are the number one cause of death among girls ages 15-19; of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth each year, 90% are married.  Furthermore, because adolescents’ bodies are not yet fully developed, they are at a greater risk pregnancy complications including obstructed labor, which can cause obstetric fistula. The consequences of obstetric fistula are devastating: the baby usually dies, and the woman can suffer from constant leakage of urine or feces or both. The condition can result in stigma, isolation, and abuse.

Early marriage is an egregious violation of human rights with severe consequences for girls’ sexual and reproductive health. All girls deserve to enjoy their adolescence, and the cycle of early marriage can be broken. Programs that can help include those that provide better economic opportunities for girls, that help girls stay in school, and that work to change traditional attitudes and policies about early marriage, as well as those that offer sexual and reproductive health services to married adolescents.

In the next two blog posts, two youth authors, one from Zimbabwe and one from the Philippines, will share the direct impact of early marriage on their communities.