Last month, academics, advocates, and religious leaders gathered at an event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations during the American Academy of Religion conference to discuss the relationship between religion and child marriage.
Although global rates of child marriage are on a downward trajectory, progress in curbing this practice has been far too slow. The United Nations estimates that one in three women aged twenty to twenty-four —almost 70 million women total — married under the age of eighteen. Approximately 23 million were married under the age of fifteen, and some were married as young as eight or nine years old. The implications are dire: child marriage is linked to poor health, curtailed education, violence, and lawlessness, all of which threatens international development, prosperity, and stability.
Religion is often blamed for the prevalence of child marriage. Notably, however, the practice is not unique to any one faith; in fact, it occurs across religions and regions. For example, in India, where 40 percent of the world’s known child brides reside, child marriage is prevalent among both Muslims and Hindus. In Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, child marriage is practiced by Christians and Muslims alike. An analysis by the International Center for Research on Women found that what is constant across countries with high child marriage rates is not adherence to one particular faith, but rather factors such as poverty and limited education opportunities for girls.
The prevalence of child marriage varies greatly even among countries that incorporate religious doctrine into their legal systems. Some Muslim-majority countries, for example, that integrate Sharia law, such as Libya and Algeria, have relatively low rates of child marriage. In other countries that practice Sharia law, such as Yemen, the practice is rampant.
Child marriage might not be tied to one faith, but religious leaders still have a crucial role to play in curbing the practice — particularly because marriages are often ratified as part of a religious ceremony. Working with religious leaders to tackle the scourge of child marriage has proven especially effective, both because these leaders are uniquely influential in their communities and because religious texts and traditions often encourage advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable, including children.
Examples of successful programs to combat child marriage by engaging religious leaders abound. In Ethiopia, for example, Pathfinder International partnered with local faith leaders and government officials to increase awareness about the risks and consequences of early marriage. As part of this program, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders committed to ending child marriage and other harmful traditional practices. In 2005 and 2006, Pathfinder estimated that this initiative prevented more than 14,000 early marriages in the Amhara and Tigray regions of Ethiopia.
Tostan, based in Senegal, is another organization that has worked effectively with religious officials to prevent child marriage. Tostan partners with community and faith leaders in community empowerment programs to address traditions that are harmful to children, including female genital mutilation and child marriage. Through engagement with these leaders, over 6,400 communities in Senegal have pledged to end child marriage and other harmful practices.
As these programs demonstrate, religious leaders can be valuable allies in combating child marriage. Development organizations should engage with these leaders to eliminate child marriage across countries, regions, and faiths.