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UNICEF: number of African child brides to rise

November 26, 2015

UNICEF warns the number of African women married off as child brides could double by 2050. Based on the current rate, the UN agency predicts more than 300 million underage brides in Africa by the middle of the century.

Child bride in Africa
Image: picture alliance/AP Images/S. Alamba

UNICEF published a report on Thursday saying that one in three African girls were married before the age of 18 - most commonly in poor, rural communities where the practice of paying a dowry was considered routine. The minimum legal age for marriage is 15 in several African countries. Currently, the total number of child brides in Africa is estimated to be around 125 million women.

But the number of women who married before the age of 18 in Africa could rise to a total of 310 million by 2050, unless improvements are made. UNICEF said that rapid population growth and limited social change across the African continent were key factors contributing to their prediction. The report was published at the start of a two-day African Union summit on ending child marriage.

The UN agency found that while the percentage of women married as children had dropped during recent decades for Africa, the rate of the decline was still too slow when combined with the rapid population growth projected for the continent, especially in populous regions like Nigeria and Tanzania. The report said that Africa would overtake South Asia as the region with the most child marriages by 2050. Nearly half of all South Asian girls are presently married before the age of 18.

Child bride in Africa
Child brides are at a higher risk of contracting HIV and facing health complications during and after childbirthImage: picture alliance/AP Images/S. Alamba

"The sheer number of girls affected - and what this means in terms of lost childhoods and shattered futures - underline the urgency of banning the practice of child marriage once and for all," UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said in a statement, calling for accelerated efforts to curb the practice. "Each child bride is an individual tragedy. An increase in their number is intolerable."

The UN said that currently among African women aged 20 - 24, 34 percent were married off before age 18; that figure stood at 44 percent in 1990. But with the overall population of underage girls on the continent expected to rise from 275 million today to 465 million by 2050, the absolute number of women forecast to be married off as children is projected to reach 310 million in the worst-case scenario.

UNICEF predicted in the report that if the current levels of improvement continued steadily, then 215 million underage brides would live on the continent by 2050. Should the reduction in underage marriages accelerate in the coming decades, as UNICEF hopes, then population growth would lead to 150 million child brides by 2050 - 25 million more that today.

Reproductive health and HIV-related issues

UNICEF also stressed that women married as child brides were at an increased risk of facing social injustice, including becoming victims of violence and dropping out of school. With a higher likelihood of contracting HIV, young girls married early could also face a host of health complications.

The report added that it was important to increase girls' access to reproductive health services in order to ensure that they had fewer, safer pregnancies. UNICEF said that child brides were more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth and to be beaten, raped or infected with HIV by their husbands than women who marry later.

Children born to teenage mothers have a higher risk of being stillborn, dying soon after birth and having low birth weight.

Call to action

The study found that the poorest regions of Africa were most affected by the practice of child marriage. No change had taken place in 25 years, as impoverished families struggled to feed, clothe and educate their children, with marriage often seen as the best chance to secure a girl's future. In the Central African Republic and some other regions, the practice of boys being married off while underage was also rated disproportionately high.

The UN children's fund added that African governments needed to make sure that more girls' births were registered so that their age was known at the time of marriage, helping to enforce laws prohibiting child marriage.

ss/msh (Reuters, dpa)