Child marriages create long-lasting negative intergenerational impacts, with harmful implications to a nation’s future

Child marriage is a deeply rooted gender inequality issue stemming from social and cultural norms.

It has gained global attention due to its violation of children’s rights and the limitations it imposes on their choices and opportunities.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), child marriage is defined as both formal and informal unions between a child under the age of 18 and an adult, or a child of the same age.

The latest data from UNICEF in 2021 shows that approximately 19 per cent of girls worldwide are married before the age of 18 each year. Furthermore, one in five girls in developing countries is married by the age of 18, and one in nine girls is married before the age of 15.

In Southeast Asian countries, despite the existence of minimum marriage ages, seven out of 10 countries recorded high rates of child marriage under the age of 18, exceeding 10 per cent from 2014 to 2018, especially among girls. Laos has the highest rate of child marriage, with 33 per cent of girls and 11 per cent of boys getting married before the age of 18.

Child marriage is prone to negative intergenerational impacts, not only on the individuals involved but also on future generations.

Girls who marry at a young age tend to complete their education at lower levels, resulting in lower educational attainment for their children. Moreover, girls who marry early may not be mentally and cognitively ready, and mothers with lower levels of education spend less time on educational activities at home, making them unable to assist their children with schoolwork.

Additionally, lower maternal literacy hinders their children’s nutritional status and growth during infancy. Child marriage can also reduce the aspirations of mothers, which can negatively affect their children’s educational achievements, including their intelligence at an early age.

These negative impacts become more significant as their children enter adolescence, especially for girls, as this period provides opportunities for learning and skills development that can delay marriage.

However, a child’s intelligence is one of the key factors in breaking the cycle of poverty since intelligence encompasses knowledge and skills acquired through education, which in turn determines economic success. A child’s intelligence has significant implications for future job opportunities and higher income.

In fact, cognitive intelligence measured by standardised test scores contributes more to economic growth than educational attainment.

Unfortunately, in line with the high prevalence of child marriages, as many as five out of seven Southeast Asian countries are in the lower quartile of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores, which measure the intelligence of children in mathematics, science, and reading. This will have long-term, harmful implications  to these nations’ future.

Although several Southeast Asian countries have made efforts to raise the minimum marriage age through regulations as a positive step to reduce child marriage rates, this needs to be complemented by government campaigns across various media platforms to raise awareness of the negative consequences of child marriage.

Increasing public awareness of the economic and social costs of child marriage is crucial in changing social norms that harm society at large.

Delaying the age of marriage contributes to an individual’s educational attainment, which in turn affects their mental and emotional maturity in child-rearing, as well as their financial stability, considering the cost of raising children is not cheap. When parents, especially mothers, have their own sources of income, they can provide more educational choices for their children, especially if they are well-educated.

Therefore, policymakers can prioritise effective programmes to change parental education aspirations, which can ultimately prevent child marriage. Conditional cash transfers is one such programme.

Equally important, education for all, regardless of gender, is one of the best strategies to protect children from early marriage.

When children can continue their education and avoid early marriage, they not only build a better foundation for their own lives, but also for future generations.

Dr Romi Bhakti Hartarto is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya, and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.