Today, we celebrate Malala Day, a commemoration of girls’ empowerment and gender equality across all areas of human development. Like Malala Yousafzai, thousands of girls around the globe are dedicated to pursuing their education and choosing their life path yet are prevented from realizing their full potential. For the vast majority of these girls, the greatest barrier to schooling is not the bullets of terrorists — it is the day-to-day economic pressures and the unequal social expectations they face as they enter adolescence and young adulthood. It is a sad reality that in the 21st century, many girls are forced into marriage and starting a family as early as age 14, which brings their educational aspirations to a halt.
Teenage, Married, and Out of School, a new study by the FHI 360 Education Policy and Data Center, highlights the heavy toll early marriage inflicts on school participation among adolescent girls in nine countries of east and southern Africa. While the universally ratified 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), as well as national legislation in all nine countries, protect children against marriage before age 18, early marriage is still visibly present across the region. Some countries, such as Rwanda, have managed to bring this disturbing phenomenon down to a minimum, while marriage at age 14 through age 17 appears to be fairly commonplace in others (Figure 1).
Early marriage nearly eliminates a girl’s chances of continuing her education. In fact, the study found that for the average married girl in the regional sample, the odds of not being in school are 20 times greater than those of her unmarried peer. This striking negative effect largely holds true regardless of the economic status, urban or rural residence, age or prior education of the girl. Even for girls who have attended school consistently and progressed normally across grades, marriage appears to end their schooling experience, preventing completion of lower secondary school.
The study also found that early marriage affects a girl’s ability to complete her education even more than teenage childbirth. Using data from Malawi, the study examined the relative impact of marriage and childbirth, separately, on subsequent school dropout. We found that while 63 percent of girls who had a child dropped out of school the year following the birth of their child, the dropout rate was nearly universal at 93 percent for girls who were married (Figure 2). This means that the likelihood of a teenage mother returning to school and continuing her education is far greater if she is not married.
While additional research is needed to explain the difference in the effects these events have on girls’ lives, it is likely that Malawi’s 1993 Readmission Policy, which allows girls to return to school one year after childbirth (pregnant girls are not allowed to attend school), may be responsible for some of these differences. And while no specific policy exists to prohibit school participation for married girls, it appears that the social pressures of marriage are substantially higher than those of single parenthood.
As the international community embarks on a new, post-2015 development agenda, eliminating early marriage should be a top priority for policymakers and educators around the world. This will require addressing the entire social fabric surrounding teenage girls in many regions of the world, and particularly among lower income, traditional communities that continue to place a low value on the education of girls. Examples in the region, such as Rwanda, have shown that early marriage rates can be reduced to nearly zero within a short period of time. Through policy action, public education and diverse support mechanisms for teenage girls in difficult circumstances, the international community should make early marriage a thing of the past.