By Svetlana Shkolnikova, Staff Writer
More than 700 million women and girls alive today married before their 18th birthday.
Of that number, 125 million, or seventeen percent, live in Africa, where rapid population growth and faltering efforts to reduce child marriage will make the region home to the highest number of child brides, about 310 million, by 2050, according to a new UNICEF report.
The largest number of women between 20 and 24 years old who married as children currently reside in South Asia but the prevalence of child marriage there, as well as most of the world, has been steadily dropping over the years thanks to increased awareness, favorable demographic trends and other social changes.
While Africa has not been immune to progress -- the percentage of young women entering marriage as children dropped from 44 percent in 1990 to 34 percent today -- much of it has been limited to the continent's richest.
The poor continue to heavily employ the practice, particularly in rural areas, where girls are twice as likely to become child brides compared to those from urban areas. A girl from the poorest quintile is still as likely to be married as a child today as she was 25 years ago, according to the report.
The current rate of reduction in child marriages is expected to be no match for Africa's high birth rate and ballooning child population as the total population of girls soars from 275 million today to 465 million by 2050.
In May, the African Union launched an End Child Marriage campaign imploring governments to increase girls' access to birth registration, quality education and reproductive health services as well as strengthen and enforce laws and policies that prohibit marriage before 18 and protect girls' rights.
“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," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in a statement. "Each child bride is an individual tragedy. An increase in their number is intolerable."
Girls who marry as children often see their chances for a healthy and successful life dwindle: they are less likely to finish school and learn skills needed for employment, more likely to become victims of violence and contract HIV and typically set off an intergenerational cycle of poverty, said UNICEF. Babies born to teenage mothers are at a higher risk of being stillborn, dying shortly after birth and weighing below average.
Photo credit: On 14 November 2015, Amina Kamara, 15, washes laundry with her son Ali, 6 months, carried in a sling on her back at home, in Motonko Village, Ribbi Chiefdom, Moyamba District. Courtesy of UNICEF.