The Economic Pitfall of Child Marriage

By: Payal Dalal, Head of Education & Girls Programmes, Standard Chartered 

What if I were to tell you that you had a 33 per cent chance of having your human rights severely violated before the age of 19? And then I added that this one violation would affect the rest of your life – your health, education, and self determination? Would you be scared? Angry? Maybe you’d get vocal, assert yourself, and build support and protection from family, friends, and community members?

Sadly, this scenario is not hypothetical: adolescent girls, particularly those from very poor families, face these odds every day and don’t have the power or privilege to defend themselves. Their rights are constantly under threat, and one of the greatest challenges they face is early and forced child marriage. One in three adolescent girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18; one in nine girls is married by age 15.

At first glance, early and forced marriage may not seem like a pressing issue in comparison to many of the other abuses adolescent girls face – such as honor killings, starvation and rape. If you start to think about the issue more critically, however, you realize the severity of the ramifications. Compared to girls who marry later in life, child brides are more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, be denied an education, and suffer from domestic violence. Every year 14 million girls are forced to marry against their will to someone they have not chosen.

Undoubtedly, this is a moral issue, but it is also an important economic issue affecting livelihoods and the ability of women to contribute to their communities and economies. By being married early, girls are more likely to be trapped by poverty which limits not only their potential to support adequately their families but also constrains economic growth in their communities and countries. Consider that the purchasing power of women in the US ranges from USD5-USD15 trillion annually and that women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the US in the next decade. Companies face a massive opportunity cost if women in developing economies cannot realise their potential as wage-earners, entrepreneurs and consumers.

Child brides are also likely to drop out of school, for many reasons including customs, culture, assumption of household responsibilities, husbands and families that don’t support education, or laws dictating education is only for unmarried or childless girls. Without access to education, young women do not gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be competitive candidates for employment. This means businesses have fewer options in their talent pipeline and miss out on the unique perspective and contributions that women bring to the workplace.

And the gains are not limited to working for someone else. The skills gap and lack of self determination among child brides also affect entrepreneurship. With the right training and incentives, women are more likely to start an enterprise than men  and will create over half the 9.72 million small business jobs expected to be generated globally by 2018. Fewer skilled and empowered women translate into fewer small businesses and jobs in the communities; the ramifications of this reverberate throughout an entire economy.

The lesson here is that child marriage does not “only” affect fourteen million girls a year; the consequences are far reaching. Early and forced child marriage not only violates the universal declaration of human rights, but it also prevents us from having an inclusive and prosperous global economy. Something that even the most conservative economist or demanding shareholder can agree is bad news, indeed.

Photo © A World at School

Payal DalalPayal is Head of Education and Girls Programmes globally for Standard Chartered. In this capacity, she oversees all programmes related to financial education (focus on youth and SMEs), financial inclusion, and workforce development. She also manages the Bank’s flagship programme, Goal, which engages and empowers adolescent girls through sport. Payal joined Standard Chartered in July 2008 as the Head of Public Affairs for the Americas.
With a professional background in international philanthropy and politics, Payal has worked for a wide range of public sector organisations including the World Affairs Council, the Global Philanthropy Forum and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  Payal also worked on foreign policy for the Office of President William J. Clinton and remains involved with the work of the Clinton Global Initiative.  Most recently, Payal worked on the launch of the new AT&T Universal Savings and Reward Card for Citigroup’s credit card business.
A Texas native, Payal has an AB with honours from Stanford University and an MBA and an MPA from New York University.