Mapping Early Marriage in West Africa

The harmful traditional practice of child marriage persists worldwide. In developing countries, more than 30 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, and 14 percent before they are 15. Defined as a customary, religious or legal marriage of anyone under 18, child marriage occurs before the girl is physically and psychologically ready for the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing. It therefore has major consequences for public health, national security, social development, human rights, economic development and gender equality. This study scans the situation in West Africa, which has the continent’s worst rates of child marriage: 49 percent of girls under 19 are living in marital unions. They are six million of the world’s child brides.

Child brides in West Africa are also likely to be married at the very early age of 9 to 12 years, the earliest tipping point in the global south. They are also more likely to be illiterate, to be younger at first birth, to give birth to more children over their reproductive lives, to be in a polygamous union and have a lower uptake of modern family planning services than child brides in other zones of Africa and indeed South Asia. To undertake this scan, a team of 20 researchers first carried out a comprehensive desk review of existing literature to profile the situation in the 16 countries of the region. This was followed by an in-depth field investigation that captured the knowledge and insights of 218 key informants among NGOs and international development partners; government ministries and agencies with responsibility for programs in this area; and independent experts such as academics, lawyers, graduate students, consultants and international operatives.