This article has been published in Enabling Education 7
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Title: Early Marriage and Education
Author: Lewis, I
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2006

Early marriage and education

Ingrid Lewis

“Traditionally people in our village value marriage more than education of the girls. I stopped school because I got married at 14 years.” Girl, Mpika, Zambia

We are still a long way from achieving the Education for All goal of equality in education for girls and boys. One of the barriers to achieving this goal is early marriage, or the marriage of school-age children. In this article we will look at the links between early marriage and girls’ and boys’ access to, and participation in, education.

Marriage takes place for economic, cultural, religious, social and emotional reasons. In many countries, especially among poor, migrant or displaced communities, marriage at a young age is common. Usually it is girls who marry early (though it can happen to boys as well). The gender inequality present in all aspects of society, including education, leads to girls often lacking life skills and negotiating power. Therefore, while most boys have a say in when and who they marry and what they do once they are married, many girls do not get the chance to make these decisions.

Early marriage can be a violation of children’s basic rights – to a childhood, to an education, to good health and to make decisions about their own lives.

The physical, emotional and social effects of early marriage are varied, but one of the most common outcomes is the withdrawal of girls from formal education.

While marriage does not have to mean that a girl’s or boy’s education finishes, the attitudes of parents, schools and spouses in many societies mean that it often does.

Husbands of young wives are often older men, who expect their wives to follow tradition, stay home and undertake household and child-care duties. A girl may be unable to go against her husband’s wishes and the husband’s family may refuse to invest their scarce resources in the wife’s continued schooling.

Schools often have a policy of refusing to allow married or pregnant girls or girls with babies to return. They may believe that it will set a bad example to other pupils or that other parents will be angry to see the school go against the traditional beliefs. Even if they do permit girls to return, the school environment – rules, timetables and physical conditions – can make it too difficult for a girl to attend school and perform her duties as wife and mother at the same time. Bullying and abuse by teachers, pupils and other parents can further reduce girls’ self-confidence and sense of security, forcing them to give up on schooling

“Our classmates always laugh at us…saying that we are mothers and school is not our right place but home [is]”

“People always remind you of the past and this makes you think of stopping [school] again”

“Male teachers and boys take advantage of the situation and always propose love to you…” Girl pupils, Mpika, Zambia

When girls drop out of school to get married, there is a knock-on effect for the community as a whole, and for future generations. Girls who marry young, inevitably have children early, and have many children, because their knowledge of contraception is poor and their power to negotiate its use is weak. Evidence suggests that children of young, uneducated mothers are less likely to have a good start to their education, do well in class or continue beyond the minimum schooling. Their daughters especially are likely to drop out, marry young and begin the cycle again. Early marriage can, therefore, be a significant barrier for communities seeking to raise education levels and break the cycle of poverty.

It is not just girls who see their life chances reduced by early marriage. In Nepal, a study showed that boys also marry early, because of family and economic pressures. Some can carry on with school, but some are forced to drop out, so they can earn money to pay off wedding costs or to support their parents, wife and children.

Nirajan married at 11, after his sister married and left home. There was no-one to do the housework, so he had to find a wife who could help the family.

“My father said he would send me to school only up to this year [age 13]. My parents have become old. I need to plough…. It would have been good if I had a chance to continue to study.”
Nirajan, Nepal

Save the Children UK working paper on harmful practices ‘Rights of Passage’ (forthcoming)


Taking action

What can you – as an education practitioner, policy-maker, parent or pupil – do to stop early marriage affecting children’s right to education? Well, you can act at several different levels, here are a few ideas:

Campaigning and raising awareness

  • Get in touch with local women’s or children’s rights or education organisations and ask them if they are tackling early marriage issues. Can they tell you more about the issues? Can they help with activities to raise awareness of early marriage and education rights in your school or community?

Laws and policies

  • Find out more about the national policy for schools or see if there is a campaign for a national policy on education for married children and pregnant girls and young mothers. If there isn’t, can you start one?
  • Find out about any national laws on gender equality or early marriage. Can you lobby for a law to be introduced, improved or enforced, or can you raise awareness of that law in your school/community?

Individual school policy and practice

  • Research what happens in your school/community. Do children marry? Are girls getting pregnant? Why? Are married girls and boys or pregnant girls and young mothers allowed to return to school? If not, why not? If they are, what problems do they face and what does the school do to help them? Don’t forget to ask children for their views, as well as teachers and parents.
  • Encourage change in the school policy. Can you share information – on children’s rights in relation to marriage and education and on the possible impacts of early marriage – with the head teacher, the school governors and the parent-teachers association? Can you help the school administration draw up an action plan for improving practices in the school, which will enable married children, pregnant girls, etc, to be included?

Support to pupils

  • Find out which children in your community are affected.
  • Make home visits to see if you can discuss education issues with them, their families or husbands and find out why they no longer come to school.
  • Work with the family/husband, the girl (or boy) and the school administration to find a solution which will enable the girl (and other children like her) to participate fully in education, either in or out of school.

Here are some suggestions based on the experiences of teachers in Mpika, Zambia, who have succeeded in enabling married and pregnant girls and young mothers to continue with their education.

  • Can changes be made to the timetable?
  • Can catch-up or evening classes be run if the girls are absent or too busy for school during the day? Can extra homework be arranged?
  • Can the girls be paired or “twinned” with other pupils, so they support each other’s learning?
  • Can a counselling service be offered and can lessons on life skills, reproductive health and rights be introduced or improved for all pupils?
  • Can toilet facilities be improved and privacy considered?
  • Can the attitudes of teachers and pupils be changed so that they stop bullying and abusing married or pregnant pupils and instead offer support?
  • Can the parents or husband be advised on the benefits, for them and the girl, if she stays at school?
  • Can the family make small changes to the household chores or baby-care arrangements?
  • Can the family be supported to find a way of financing education for a married/pregnant girl?
  • Can the girl and her husband be offered advice to avoid (further) pregnancy until she completes school?

Zambia’s government encourages girls’ education, raises awareness on gender equality issues in schools and communities, and states that married and pregnant girls must be re-admitted to school.

Early marriage is a global issue which can violate the rights of girls and boys, both in this generation and the next. It affects the education and well-being of millions of children and has a knock-on effect for the poverty and development of communities. Due to the close link between early marriage and education, those of us involved in education are well placed to find out more about the causes and impact of such marriages. We can find ways of reducing the incidence of harmful early marriages and enable those that are married to benefit from a continued education – to the benefit of our societies as a whole.

“Investing in educational opportunities for girls yields perhaps the best returns of all investments in developing countries” (ILO)

All quotes from Zambia are taken from EENET’s publication containing teachers’ accounts of inclusion: ‘Researching Our Experience‘.