The Relationship between Child Marriage and Girls’ Education

June 09, 2014Anonymous

This post is authored by Judith-Ann Walker of the Development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC) in Kano, Nigeria.

The Problem of Child Marriage in Nigeria

The recent heated debate about child marriage in Nigeria has put the issue of ending this practice at the forefront of discussion as the nation moves towards the post-2015 era.  With a population of 167M, Nigeria has the largest population of married girls in Africa, 40 % of all females in Nigeria between the ages of 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18 years. The largest concentration of these girls is in the Northwest and Northeast of the country where the median age of first marriage is 15 years and 75% of girls within this age range are married. With UNICEF estimates of 57 million out-of-school children worldwide, Nigeria contributes 10.5 million or 1 in 5 of the world's out-of-school children (1). Girls make up more than half of the out-of-school population and are mostly located in the North of the country.  For the girls who are enrolled in schools in the Northern states of Kano, Bauchi, and Sokoto, recent studies show that literacy and learning rates as well as female teacher ratios are the lowest in country.

Girls’ Education as a Strategy to End Child Marriage

Research findings point to a clear link between ending child marriage and the growth and prosperity of nations in the global south. Numerous studies and reports demonstrate that ending child marriage is critical for girls’ rights, health, well-being and ability to survive into adulthood. Ending child marriage lessens the burden on the health infrastructure and reduces the human footprint of resource-poor countries. It reduces human suffering, recognizes human dignity and challenges gender-based discrimination. Ultimately, ending child marriage frees up untapped human resources and enables girls and women to contribute, meaningfully to development (i).

In recent times the greatest success story in ending child marriage through education has been in the Arab world. UNICEF studies identify countries in North Africa as having made the greatest demographic transition to higher age of marriage for girls, lower total fertility rates, higher education for girls and increased status for females. While 22% of women aged 15-19 were married in Egypt in 1975, by 2003 this figure had declined to 10%. Similarly, in Tunisia, 11% of women aged 15-19 were married in the year 1975 but by 2001 this figure had declined to only 1% . This pattern is representative of North Africa where figures range from only 1% of women aged 15-19 married in Tunisia and Libya to the highest levels of 17% in Yemen as at 2001 (3) . It is against this background that a recent UNICEF report refers to progress in North Africa as good news and points out that age of marriage appears to be rising – most rapidly in Asia and in North Africa (4).

Strategies and Mechanisms to End Child Marriage through Girls’ Education

Studies show that investing in girls’ education improves the life chances of girls and leads to smaller and more sustainable families (What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World,” Senior Fellow Gene Sperling, and Barbara Herz, 2004). The specific findings from empirical research on this issue points to the fact that:

  • A single year of primary education correlates with a 10-20% increase in women’s wages later in life. Academic studies find the return to a year of secondary education is even higher – in the 15-25% range;
  • An extra year of a woman’s education has been shown to reduce the risk that her children will die in infancy by 5–10 percent;
  • Education offers what the World Bank has referred to as a “window of hope” in helping prevent the spread of AIDS among today’s children. A recent study of a school-based AIDS education program in Uganda found a 75 percent reduction in the likelihood that children would be sexually active in their last year of primary school;
  • Girls’ education is the best single policy for reducing fertility and therefore achieving smaller and more sustainable families, according to a recent survey of the academic literature. In Brazil, for example, illiterate mothers have an average of six children while literate mothers choose to have less than three children, and are better able to care for and invest in their children’s well-being;
  • A study of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa found that from 1960 to 1992, more equal education between men and women could have led to nearly 1 percent higher annual per capita GDP growth.


The UN Secretary-General made the case for the linkage between child marriage and girls’ education in his message on the inaugural Day of the Girl Child in 2012 when he noted that: 

"Child marriage divorces girls from opportunity... Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage. When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families. And if they have already been married young, access to education, economic opportunities and health services—including HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health—will help enrich their lives and enhance their future (1)."

The theme of ending child marriage through girls’ education continued to dominate press releases and calls to action by UN agencies for the 2013 International Day of the Girl Child (2).  This new perspective seems set to influence the future development agenda as early releases of the 2014–2015 EFA [Education for All] Global Monitoring Report make the case for the linkage between girls’ education and child marriage: “If all women had a primary education, child marriages and child mortality could fall by a sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds.”

Ending Child Marriage through Girls’ Education in Nigeria

What can be done in Nigeria to ensure that girls’ education programs contribute towards ending child marriage?

  1. Civil society organizations and donor agencies must support pilot education projects in early marriage hot spot zones and establish Monitoring and Evaluation frameworks to track the impact of girls’ educational attainment on attitudes regarding the ideal age of marriage. Through the Partnership to Strengthen Innovation and Practice in Secondary Education, the MacArthur Foundation funded a project implemented by the Kano-based Development Research and Projects Center (dRPC), Kano, that aims to provide this evidence base.
  2. Invite public health and women’s rights stakeholders working on ending child marriage to discussion forums with girls’ education advocates.
  3. Identify the hotspots for early marriage from the National Demographic Health Survey and target girls at the tipping point of child marriage to ensure that they are kept in schools
  4. In child marriage hotspot areas, reduce school fees, defray indirect costs of schooling through scholarships and cash transfers
  5. Mobilize and train education planners and implementers on gender responsive planning and analysis for girls education
  6. Donor agencies in particular have an important role to play training education bureaucrats in gender responsive policy making and analysis
  7. Design and run school health and nutrition programs
  8. Building schools close to girls’ homes
  9. Make schools more girl-friendly by providing water, private latrines and ensuring girls’ safety at school
  10. Develop and deploy more female teachers for girls
  11. Improve the quality of education through pre and in-service basic teacher training
  12. Develop school-to-work bridging programs in which girls in hotspot areas are encouraged to develop careers and join the world of work as an alternative to marrying early


Think tanks and policy analysis agencies within and outside government also have a strategic contribution to make by showing the possibilities of policy design for this area of integrated policy making.  The most important areas of their contribution are:

  1. It is imperative that think tanks locate current discussions on ending child marriage and on girls’ education taking place separately in Nigeria within the context of a new global policy shift where the two conversations are integrated and strong policy linkages are being fashioned out.
  2. It is equally important that think tank conduct policy analysis to support the Nigerian government’s position at regional agreements and meetings where debates are taking place on the rights of the girl child and girls’ education.
  3. Such agencies must also start a conversation on the role of women and girls in the new Nigerian economy and link the education and training needs of girls to contribute to this new economy as well as to reducing the health burden in the country.



(1) United Nations, “Secretary-General’s Message for 2012,”

(2) “UN Joint Statement on Ending Child Marriage through Girls’ Education, 2013 International Day of the Girl Child”: “Support girls who are already married by providing them with options for schooling, sexual and reproductive health information and services, including HIV prevention, livelihoods skills and recourse from..." 

(i) Elizabeth M. King and M. Anne Hill (eds.) Women’s Education in Developing Countries. Barriers, Benefits and Policies. Published for the World Bank. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

(3) Rashad, H.; Osma, M.; and Roudi-Fahimi, F. Marriage in the Arab World, Population Reference Bureau; 2004

(4) UNICEF Digest. Early Marriages, Child Spouses, UNICEF, Early Marriage and Child Spouses, Innocenti Digest,; No. 7 – March 2001

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