In societies where this tradition is entrenched, particularly among the poorest of the poor, parents often regard early marriage as a way to eliminate an economic burden. They may see educating a daughter as a waste of resources and seek to hasten the day when she moves to her husband's home.
Programs that target this economic dynamic have reduced child marriages. In Ethiopia's rural Amhara region, for example, parents of girls 10 to 14 were given $6 to pay for their daughter's school supplies plus a goat worth $25 if she remained enrolled for two years. After that period, girls in the program were one-tenth as likely to be married and three times as likely to be in school as their peers. Similar programs in Malawi and Bangladesh have also reduced child-marriage rates.
In addition to helping pay the costs of keeping a daughter at home, these programs encourage a view of girls as children rather than brides. Parents can imagine a return on investment in educated daughters equipped for jobs. And schooling gives girls the skills, social networks and confidence to better negotiate their futures.
The challenge is to expand these interventions. Governments will need to make them part of national education policy, and donors will need to help with funding. The Ethiopian program was a partnership of local authorities and the Population Council, a nongovernmental organization focused on health and development issues, with funding from the Nike Foundation, the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
High child-marriage rates are associated with weak national indicators not only in maternal health and education but also poverty, food security and HIV incidence, since badly informed and weakly connected mothers make poor decisions for themselves and their families. If girls are educated, they won't be the only ones who benefit.