LONDON – More than 700 million women alive today were married before they turned 18, the United Nations' children agency said Tuesday, as it co-hosts a London summit calling for more progress to end child marriages and the practice of female genital mutilation.
Figures released by UNICEF say child brides are most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and about one in three — or some 250 million — were married before they turned 15.
India alone accounts for a third of all the world's child brides, the agency said. Poorer girls are much more vulnerable: While the wealthiest girls in India marry at around 20 years old, the poorest do so at an average age of 15.
"Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence," UNICEF said. "Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s. Their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life."
The agency said that while the percentage of girls being married as children is slowly declining, population growth means that the absolute numbers will remain high unless more drastic action is taken.
Some progress has also been made on ending female genital mutilation, most commonly practiced in Africa and the Middle East, UNICEF said. Countries including Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria have seen a significant drop in the past three decades, but it is still highly prevalent in Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Somalia.
UNICEF and Britain's government hope that Tuesday's Girl Summit, which will be attended by Prime Minister David Cameron, will help galvanize action to end both practices within a generation.