There are 650 million child brides in the world, with one in every five women between the ages of 20 and 24 getting married before her 18th birthday. Most child brides have their first child while they are still in their teens and have poorer health, larger families, lower education and little or no income compared to women who marry after the legal age of 18 and have their first child after the age of 21.

Though young girls are disproportionately affected and are more likely to be forced to marry an adult much older than them, young boys also get trapped into child marriage. Boys account for one in seven of the 765 million child marriages worldwide, according to the world’s first ever estimate on child grooms done by Unicef.

At least 115 million boys and men around the world were married as children, shows data on child grooms from 82 countries. Of these, one in five children, or 23 million boys, were married before the age of 15. The Central African Republic has the highest prevalence of child marriage among men (28%), followed by Nicaragua (19%) and Madagascar (13%).

Gender rules

Far more girls become child brides than boys become grooms worldwide. One in five young women aged 20 to 24 years get married before their 18th birthday, compared to one in 30 young men, according to Unicef.

But regardless of gender, child marriage ends childhood. While gender inequality and dowry, which, in many communities, increases as girls get older, drive early marriage in women, persistent poverty remains the overarching cause across genders. Like child brides, underage grooms belong to the poorest households, live in rural areas or areas of conflict, and have little or no education and job prospects. Their plight mirrors that of child brides, with poverty, social norms, family honour, the perception that marriage will provide social and economic protection, and poor implementation of laws banning child marriage.

For girls, moving into a new home leads to social isolation from family and friends and other sources of support. While child grooms don’t face relocation to a new home, the pressure of providing for their new family forces them to take on adult responsibilities and join the unskilled labour force. “Early marriage brings early fatherhood, and with it, added pressure to provide for a family, cutting short education and job opportunities,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director, Unicef, on Friday when the data was released.

India has registered a sharp decline in child marriage among girls, from 47% in 2005-06 to 26.8% in 2015-16 among 20-24 girls, according to the National Family Health Survey data, but this means around 1.5 million girls are still getting married before the age of 18. Of these, 7% became brides before the age of 15 years. NHFS-4 does not provide data child marriage data for men.

Focus states

Just 12 of 29 states are home to 40% of child brides, with the highest prevalence in West Bengal, where at least one in four girls (25.6%) between the ages of 20 and 24 years got married before she turned 18. Tripura (21.6%), Bihar (19.7%), Jharkhand (17.8%),Dadra and Nagar Haveli (17.5%), Assam (16.7%), Andhra Pradesh (16.6%), Rajasthan (16.2%), Gujarat (13.1%), Telangana (12.9%), Maharashtra (12.1%) and Arunachal Pradesh (12.1%) are the other states where child marriage remains high.

Wealth is a bigger driver than caste in most states. In the 10 states with highest prevalence, child marriage took place across all caste groups. In Arunachal Pradesh, 72% child brides belong to scheduled tribes, “other castes” account for 38% girls married before 18 in Maharashtra. Child marriage is high among other backward castes in Bihar, Gujarat and Telangana, while it is the most prevalent among scheduled castes in West Bengal.

Again, there are wide variations in child marriage trends within states, shows analysis of NFHS-4 data. It’s most common in Murshidabad (39.9%) in West Bengal, followed by Gandhinagar (39.3%) in Gujarat, Bhilwara (36.4%) in Rajasthan, Shrawasti (36.3%) in Uttar Pradesh, Birbhum (35.2%) in West Bengal, Khagaria (34.4%) in Bihar, Goalpara (33.9%) in Assam, Deoghar (32.7%) and Giridih (32.2%) in Jharkhand.
Since child marriage is less prevalent in boys than girls in India, India must accelerate efforts to end it by 2030, but a lot more needs to be done to stop young girls being pushed to marry in their teens. Improving access to education and skilled workforce participation are essential for India’s young population to achieve their full potential and drive the country’s growth.