In developing countries, nearly 65 million women between age 20 and 24 were married or lived with a partner before the age of 18.
30 million of these women live in Southern Asia (Source : UNICEF, 1987-2005).
The practice of girls' early marriage, i.e. female minors under 18, is particularly widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
However, in the Middle-East, in Northern Africa and in some regions of Asia, marriage at puberty or not long thereafter is commonplace in some categories of population.
In areas of extreme poverty, early marriage is considered an economic survival strategy. In Iraq, early marriages have increased as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on the country. Given the circumstances, the risk of exploitation is very high. A recent study carried out in five underprivileged Egyptian villages found that girls were married through agents, to much older men from rich Middle-Eastern countries.
There are several explanations to why the tradition of early marriage continues. In many countries, the fear of HIV infection has incited men to seek ever younger “partners”. Early marriage is also regarded as a way to ensure that girls are “protected”. In rural areas of Albania, families encourage their daughters to wed early in order to avoid the risk of being kidnapped. In Somalia, some families torn by the conflicts of civil war have given their daughters away to militia members in exchange for their child's and their own protection.
Many teenage girls who are forced into early marriages, are victims of continuing domestic violence. Furthermore, early marriages are often followed by the abandonment of wives, throwing girls into extreme poverty and raising their risk of sexual exploitation.
Finally, in terms of health, although early marriage is not a direct cause of mortality, it remains one of the aggravating factors in maternal and infant mortality, essentially because of premature pregnancies and risks of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Moreover, every year 8,000 young girls develop a fistula (a rupture between the bladder and the vagina which causes incontinence).
Sources: UNICEF, NGO AVEC