South Asia home to world’s highest number of child brides, says new UN study

Region accounts for 45% of global total of child brides

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Thursday 20 April 2023 12:22 BST
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Representational image: South Asia accounts for 45% of child brides
Representational image: South Asia accounts for 45% of child brides (AP)

South Asia is home to the highest number of child brides in the world due to increased financial pressure and school closures that encouraged families to marry off their young daughters, according to Unicef.

There are an estimated 290 million child brides in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Maldives, the children's agency of the UN said on Wednesday, calling for more efforts to end the practice.

The region accounts for 45 per cent of the global total number of child brides.

"The fact that South Asia has the highest child marriage burden in the world is nothing short of tragic," said Noala Skinner, Unicef's regional director for South Asia.

"Child marriage locks girls out of learning, puts their health and wellbeing at risk and compromises their future. Every girl who gets married as a child is one girl too many."

The legal age of marriage for women is 18 in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, 20 in Nepal, and 16 in Afghanistan. Pakistan has set the legal age at 16 as well, except for the Sindh province, where the minimum age is 18.

However, the rule is routinely flouted due largely to the economic constraints placed on families in these regions – something that only worsened during the pandemic.

The UN study found that across 16 locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, parents viewed their daughters as a “burden” and considered marriage as the best option for daughters who had limited options to study during Covid-19 lockdowns.

The families also felt pushed by the financial pressures of reduced work during the pandemic to marry their daughters at a younger age, in order to reduce costs at home.

“There were perceptions that girls might ‘misbehave’ when not in school,” the study found.

In Afghanistan, debt and starvation forced citizens to marry off their young daughters in exchange for a dowry after the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021 led to an economic collapse. Families were forced to offer daughters who were as young as 20 days old in exchange for dowry to keep their families from starving.

A 2021 report by Unicef found that India was home to the largest number of child brides in the world, at around 223 million. At least 1.5 million underage girls were being married off each year in India.

Eliminating child, early and forced marriage requires long-term efforts, said Amina Mahbub, the Asia-Pacific regional research and evidence lead for Plan International.

“In order to accelerate momentum towards our goal of ending child marriage, the measurement of outcome and impact indicators at regular intervals is essential,” she said.

Unicef said on Wednesday that potential solutions include enacting social protection measures to counter poverty, protecting every child’s right to education, ensuring an adequate framework to enforce the law and making more efforts to address social norms.

“We must do more and strengthen partnerships to empower girls through education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and equipping them with skills, while supporting communities to come together to end this deeply rooted practice,” said Björn Andersson, Asia-Pacific regional director of the United Nations Population Fund.

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