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Child marriage—defined as marriage before age 18—is considered to be a violation of human rights and is associated with numerous adverse health, social, and economic outcomes. As such, it is the object of substantial programmatic and policy action. However, a better understanding of specifically how child marriage is or is not changing is needed to inform policies and programs to promote delayed marriage.
This study analyzes trends in the age structure of child marriage in four Asian countries—Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Nepal. It identifies specific patterns of and trends in inequalities of child marriage across three socioeconomic factors—education, wealth, and residence. We find significant decreases in child marriage in all four countries since the 1990s. The rate of change has been unevenly paced, with rapid increases in age at marriage followed by periods of little change. The prevalence of child marriage generally falls first at the youngest ages, followed by decreases in marriage rates later in adolescence. India has experienced the largest declines in child marriage, while marriage remains an adolescent experience for the majority of women in Bangladesh and Nepal. Child marriage is most common in Bangladesh and least common in Indonesia. There is no discernible trend toward non-marriage, but rather a trend toward delayed marriage only.
Inequalities in child marriage have mostly narrowed over the previous decade, except in Nepal. Still, we find widespread inequalities by women’s education, household wealth, and urban-rural residence, with child marriage concentrated among more disadvantaged groups. Inequalities based on education are wider than those based on either wealth or residence. A pattern of mass deprivation is observed with regard to education—child marriage is prevalent at all levels of education but the highest—while wealth-based inequalities follow a queuing pattern—child marriage increases with each category of disadvantage. These patterns of inequality suggest that policies should broadly promote delayed marriage, alongside targeted interventions directed to the most disadvantaged groups.