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Child marriage: a risk factor for HIV

Girls who are forced into marriage before the age of 18 are at a heightened risk of HIV. These are some of the reasons why:

Young girls are vulnerable to infection because their vaginal tissues are not yet mature enough for intercourse. Sex that is forced or violent causes physical trauma that makes them particularly susceptible to infection.

The age differential between husbands and their child wives increases the risk of HIV for these girls. Research shows that husbands of child brides are generally older than the boyfriends of unmarried girls: this means that the husbands have a greater lifetime risk of acquiring HIV.

Young girls in marriages to older men lack equal power in the relationship, making it difficult or impossible for them to refuse sex or negotiate safer sex.

Child wives are often very isolated because they are removed from school and from peer and social networks. They frequently have little access to AIDS information or services.

Lifelong risk
Child wives are at an increased risk of HIV even if they are able to leave the marriage. Many who escape forced marriages are forced to resort to commercial sexual exploitation; others who are widowed, divorced or abandoned face social exclusion and economic vulnerability that places them at risk. 

Falling through the cracks
Due to a widespread assumption in many countries that being married is equivalent to reaching majority status, many child wives are not being reached by HIV services or child protection programs: adolescent health programs often focus on unmarried girls who are enrolled in school, and broader HIV and health policies often group married women together, without looking at the very real and specific risks for child wives.

Related items:
Child marriage fact sheet
Child marriage vs. child labor chart