Africa is expected to surpass South Asia as the region with the highest number of child brides, due to slow child marriage reduction coupled with an expected population boom in the next few decades, according to a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund.
700 million girls worldwide are married before their 18th birthday, according to the UNICEF report, A Profile of Child Marriage in Africa, with 17% of child brides living in Africa (about 125 million). Of those, more than 40 million girls were married before they turned 15. The report estimates fast population growth could cause the total number of child brides in Africa to double to 310 million by 2050.
According to UNICEF, some progress has been made in reducing Africa’s prevalence of child marriage over the last twenty five years. Currently, 34% of young women were married as children, down from 44% in 1990. Unfortunately, most of that reduction has escaped economically vulnerable communities, and the report shows girls living in poor areas or rural villages are twice as likely to be married off early as girls living in richer provinces or cities. Rich communities in Africa have seen child marriage halved since 1990, while in poor communities the child marriage rate remains the same.
UNICEF explains that because Africa’s population is expected to balloon from 275 million to 465 million by 2050, far more drastic action is needed to cut the absolute number of girls who are married so young. If the rate of reduction stays the same, the agency says 42% of child brides in the world will be in Africa by the middle of the century.
The U.N. agency notes that a reduction in child brides is especially important because early marriage has negative outcomes that ripple across communities and through generations. Girls who are married as children or teenagers are less likely to finish school, and more likely to experience violence or contract HIV. Children of teenage mothers are also more likely to die at birth or have a low birth weight, because young mothers are less likely to get adequate prenatal care.
“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.