Why Ending Child Marriage Abroad Is Good for the U.S.

When fewer girls get married, GDP, health, and wages all increase -- making for a safer, more prosperous world.

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A 12-year-old child bride in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, India on July 30 , 2011. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Recent reports of the brutal rape of two girls in India, aged four and five, have rightfully spurred protests and condemnations in that country and around the world. Yet in India and elsewhere, sexual violence against young girls is not only tolerated, but celebrated, when it is given another name: marriage.

Child marriage is a global epidemic that occurs across regions, cultures, and religions. The number of women married as children is staggering: the United Nations estimates that one in three women aged 20 to 24 was married under the age of 18. Many of these women were even younger at the time of their marriage: nearly five million girls are married under the age of 15 every year, or about 13,000 per day. Some are married as young as 8 or 9 years old. In India, which accounts for 40 percent of the world's known child brides, child marriages are still celebrated en masse; this tradition is also pervasive elsewhere in South Asia, across Sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of Latin America and the Middle East.

Child marriage is undoubtedly a violation of human rights. This practice truncates girls' education, robs them of their economic potential, and endangers their health. It also exposes young girls to intolerable sexual violence and abuse, often at the hands of much older men: one study in India showed that those married as girls report twice as many instances of beatings and threats by their husbands, and three times as many instances of rape, as women married as adults.

Though few would dispute that this practice is abhorrent, why should the average American care about the fate of a young girl in the developing world? The answer, it turns out, is not simply morality or justice -- it is self-interest. What happens to an individual girl affects the stability of her family, community, economy, and nation, which in turn has broad implications for U.S. foreign policy. As I demonstrate in a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations, a body of evidence shows that child marriage undermines U.S. interests in development, prosperity, and stability.

Consider, for example, the effect of this practice on economic growth, a priority that cuts across borders in our increasingly globalized world. Research suggests that child marriage often curtails education for young girls, which not only undercuts their potential but also stifles economic progress. Even one extra year of schooling beyond the average can increase women's wages by 10 to 20 percent, and a World Bank study suggests that a one-percentage-point increase in the share of women with a secondary education raises a country's annual per-capita income growth by 0.3 percent. These benefits vanish from the global economy when girls' education is cut short by marriage.

Child marriage also undermines global health, a priority on which the United States spends billions of dollars in foreign aid every year. Early marriage begets early pregnancy and childbearing, which is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world. Even when young mothers do survive, the health of their children is jeopardized: stillbirths and infant mortality are 50 percent more likely when mothers are under the age of twenty, and the risks of prematurity, low birth weight, and childhood malnutrition increase as well. These poor health outcomes undercut our investments in global health and foster poverty and instability.

U.S. security interests are also weakened by child marriage. Research suggests that child marriage is associated with instability: one analysis shows that most of the 25 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are either fragile states or at high risk of natural disaster. News reports from war-torn states such as Syria or Afghanistan, or drought-stricken countries like Niger, confirm that families often pursue child marriage in an attempt to preserve resources in crisis situations; however, perpetuation of this practice in weak states only exacerbates poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and instability in places already overwhelmed by complex challenges.

In March, Congress passed a law reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which was hailed as a domestic victory for women in the United States. But this law was a foreign policy victory as well, thanks to a provision that requires the Secretary of State to develop a U.S. strategy to combat the international scourge of child marriage. As the Obama Administration develops this strategy in a time of fiscal austerity, policymakers would do well to remember that combating child marriage is not only a moral imperative -- it is a strategic imperative. The success of U.S. efforts to foster economic growth, improve global health, and promote stability and security will grow if this persistent practice comes to an end.