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The Role of Economic Policies in Preventing Child Marriage

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Written by Pir Servan Tutsi


Although citizens of developed countries may be relatively insulated from the practice, child marriage is a widespread form of human rights violation in most developing and less developed countries. Around 21% of young women globally were married before they were 18, and, in the case of the African country Niger, this number goes up to 76% [1]. While the last few decades have seen improvements, Covid-19 has put an additional 10 million children at risk of child marriage [2]. In light of the pandemic, the need for policies that are not just effective in the short run but also robust to socio-economic shocks —such as pandemics, recessions, and droughts—has become clear. Prohibitions of child marriage and calls to stop the practice by the governments are not necessarily effective. First, although punishing the doer for the deed is essential in the prevention efforts, prohibitions on their own do not support the social change required to address the drivers of child marriage. Second, in countries where the practice is widespread, states are generally not capable of tracking it. So, to address this problem, we must look for more effective solutions, and the improvement of economic institutions might be the answer.


“Of course, there are social and cultural dimensions to child marriage that cannot be addressed by economic policies directly, but a review of interventions to prevent child marriages shows that a substantial number of policies that have succeeded in reducing the proportion of child marriages or increased the mean marriage age were those that were economic.”


To understand how economic institutions can reduce the incidence of child marriages, it is first vital to understand the financial incentives that lead to child marriages. In most societies where child marriage is pervasive, households depend on rain-fed crops for their consumption and income. More than 95% of farmed land in sub-Saharan Africa, 90% in Latin America, 75% in the Near East and North Africa, 65% in East Asia, and 60% in South Asia is being used for growing rain-fed crops [3]. Hence, households experience dire constraints to their consumption in cases of drought, extreme rainfall, grasshopper invasions, or other situations that may affect their harvest. Studies show that there is a strong correlation between child marriages and these income shocks for girls. For the bride’s household, child marriage, both by reducing a mouth in the household and getting a bride price, serves as a way to compensate for the adversities caused by income shocks. Since marriages are often patrilocal or virilocal and there is a lag between income shocks and implementation of coping mechanisms, parents who want to marry their daughter can find grooms whose households were either less impacted or have already coped with the shocks effectively by other means.

Susceptibility of families to income shocks can be addressed by a proper redistribution of the resources, a key task of the social welfare systems. Redistribution of resources includes collecting taxes (to raise a budget) and government spending (to distribute resources to those who need them). Ensuring smooth consumption, i.e., having a consistent supply of food throughout the year instead of going through cycles of peaks and lows, for vulnerable households through a social security system could be a crucial step towards preventing child marriages. Finally, by providing families with the needed food subsidies and introducing more drought-resistant agricultural methods, governments can decrease households’ dependence on the yields of one or two harvests by making their diets more fitted to unexpected weather conditions.

Another crucial finding from a study is that children who are off school are more likely to get married, and after an income shock, families prefer marrying their children away instead of investing in their education. By making education more tenable through cash or in-kind transfers —i.e., financial support that can only be spent on schooling— and convincing families that educating their children will pay off, governments can replace families’ notion of education from an expense to an investment. This will likely result in fewer families turning to child marriage as a solution during financial difficulty.


“Prohibitions of child marriage and calls to stop the practice by the governments are not necessarily effective. First, although punishing the doer for the deed is essential in the prevention efforts, prohibitions on their own do not support the social change required to address the drivers of child marriage. Second, in countries where the practice is widespread, states are generally not capable of tracking it. ”


Yet another way economic institutions can help prevent child marriages is by enforcing the rule of law. The decline of witch hunts in 17th century France might give us a clue on how the increased fiscal capacity of a state brings the rule of law with itself and, as a result, can help control social phenomena. Although child marriage and witch hunts are seemingly distant social phenomena, they are correlated highly with income shocks [4]. And, like child marriages, most witch trials during the 16th and early 17th centuries were—and the current ones are— practiced illegally. One of the problems with the witch trials in France was that local judges often deviated from the formal legal procedures and reached decisions more easily than they would if they had adhered to the law. As France constructed a centralized tax system to recruit its armies during the 17th century, witch hunts declined significantly [5]. To ensure that taxes are collected from every individual, a state must have the fiscal capacity to detect the incomes of households, track the commercial activities that take place in its borders, and have the legal capacity to enforce its laws and punish those who do not obey them. Economists Timothy Besley and Torsten Persson also show that the fiscal and legal capacity are complements; so, as the fiscal capacity of a state increases, it is better able to enforce its laws [6].

Child marriage significantly limits an individual’s chance to thrive as a person. It hinders children’s education, burdens them with financial and social responsibilities that they are not ready to take on, and exposes them sexually. It is a widespread violation of human rights rooted in social norms but persists for various reasons, many of them economic. Of course, there are social and cultural dimensions to child marriage that cannot be addressed by economic policies directly, but a review of interventions to prevent child marriages shows that a substantial number of policies that have succeeded in reducing the proportion of child marriages or increased the mean marriage age were those that were economic [7]. By empowering economic institutions, we might decrease the chance that a child is married for financial gains and better enforce the laws that prohibit child marriages. Therefore taking economic factors into account is crucial for the success of future interventions.



References:
  1. Child marriage around the world. (2020, March 11). UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/stories/child-marriage-around-world

  2. COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage. (2021, March). UNICEF DATA. https://data.unicef.org/resources/covid-19-a-threat-to-progress-against-child-marriage/

  3. Water, food & ecosystems. (n.d.). International Water Management Institute (IWMI). https://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/issues/rainfed-agriculture/summary/

  4. Edward Miguel. (2013, March). Poverty and Witch Killing. Edward Miguel . https://emiguel.econ.berkeley.edu/assets/assets/miguel_research/44/_Paper__Poverty_and_Witch_Killing.pdf

  5. Noel D. Johnson. (2014, February). Taxes, Lawyers, and the Decline of Witch Trials in France. Mason Gmu. https://mason.gmu.edu/~mkoyama2/About_files/JLE2014.pdf

  6. Timothy Besley, & Torsten Persson. (n.d.). State Capacity, Conáict and Development. Econ Lse. https://econ.lse.ac.uk/staff/tbesley/papers/statecapacity.pdf

  7. Anju Malhotra, & Shatha Elnakib. (2021, May). 20 Years of the Evidence Base on What Works to Prevent Child Marriage: A Systematic Review. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X20306868?ref=pdf_download&fr=RR-2&rr=781356438d4ebbb5

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