Early marriage is the marriage of children and adolescents below the age of 18. Causes: According to UNICEF's Innocent i Research Centre, the 'practice of marrying girls at a young age is most common in Sub-Saharan African and South Asia'. There are specific parts of West Africa and East Africa and of South Asia where marriages before puberty are not unusual. However, the Centre also notes that marriage shortly after puberty is common among those living traditional lifestyles in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia.

Marriages of female adolescents between sixteen and eighteen are common in parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe. Some are forced into this union, others are simply too young to make an informed decision. Consent is made by somebody else on the child's behalf. The child does not have the opportunity to exercise her right to choose. For this reason, early marriages are also referred to as forced marriages. In its most extreme form, forced marriages are the result of abductions.

In Uganda, young girls are abducted and forced to marry senior leaders in the guerrilla movement known as the Lord's Resistance Army. The marriages are used as a reward and incentive for male soldiers. There are a number of reasons why tradition of child marriages continues. Fear of HIV infection has encouraged men in many countries to seek younger 'partners'. Early marriages is one way to ensure that young girls are 'protected'. Families in rural Albania encourage their daughters to marry early to avoid the threat of kidnapping.

In conflict torn Somalia, families married their daughters to militia members in exchange for protection for the girl, as well as for themselves. Where poverty is acute, early marriage is also seen as a strategy for economic survival. In Iraq, early marriages are on the increase in response to poverty inflicted by the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country. In situations such as this, the risk of exploitation is great. A recent study of five poor villages in Egypt, for example, found that young girls were being married off to much older men from the oil rich Middle Eastern countries via brokers. Many girls are forced to marry early suffer from prolonged domestic violence.

Furthermore, early marriage is often linked to wife abandonment. This plungers young girls into extreme poverty and increases the risk of her entering or being forced to enter, the commercial sex trade. At times, the marriage was never intended to be a permanent union. Temporary marriages are possible via a short term marriage contact, known as Siqueh in Iran. Combined with a low legal age of marriage it is possible to circumvent the illegal act of child prostitution. In Bangladesh, poverty-stricken parents are persuaded to part with their daughters through promises of marriage, or false marriages, which are used to lure the girls into prostitution abroad.

Police in Cambodia say that hundreds, perhaps thousands of young women have been lured to Taiwan with promises of marriage to wealthy men, only to find themselves sold to a brothel owner. Poverty is the primary reason for early marriage. In Bangladesh, for example, poverty-stricken parents who can no longer afford to take care of their daughters are persuaded to part with them through marriage, which is often a means of recruiting young girls into a life of prostitution abroad. In Iraq, where 28 percent of adolescents marry before the age of 18, a recent survey revealed that poverty was the number one reason parents encouraged their children to marry early. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies are yet another factor in the rush to marry early. In Niger, a recent survey found that 44 percent of 20 to 24 year-old women in were married before they reached the age of 15 because their fathers were concerned about the potential of pregnancies outside of marriage.

Effects: For both boys and girls, early marriage has devastating physical, emotional, and intellectual consequences. The practice virtually ends a child's chances of pursuing an education or exploring professional and social life opportunities. For girls, the end result of child marriage has almost invariably been premature pregnancy. Girls aged 15 to 19 give birth to 15 million babies a year.

Many of them do so without attending an ante-natal clinic or receiving the help of a professional midwife. The consequences of early pregnancy include not only higher rates of maternal mortality worldwide, but also the possible development of holes in the lining that separates the vagina from the bladder or rectum. The condition, known as fistula, is common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Child marriage also increases the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases for teenage girls. Exposure to these diseases is often related to the false belief amongst some in non-industrialized countries that any man who sleeps with a virgin will be cured of HIV/AIDS. And beyond the physiological damage of child marriage, girls are also more likely to face a lifetime of domestic and sexual subservience.

The domestic violence that comes with early marriage has compelled many young girls to run away in desperation. 'Those who do so, ' according to the UNICEF report, 'and those who choose a marriage partner against the wishes of their parents, may be punished, or even killed by their families.' These girls run the risk of 'honor killings' -- the murder of a woman who has scorned her family name. Honor killings now regularly occur in Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey. In Egypt, 29 percent of married adolescent girls have been beaten by their husbands and, of these girls, 41 percent have been beaten during pregnancy.

In Jordan, a study published last year revealed that 26 percent of reported cases of domestic violence were committed against wives who were under the age of 18. Improvements: Prevention of the practice comes through education of parents and children -- married or not -- about the dangers of early marriage. UNICEF has launched two programs to tackle the problem in South Asia and Africa, the two regions with the highest rates of child marriage in the world. In South Asia, UNICEF runs the Meena Initiative, which educates people about the danger of preferring male babies and focuses on the unfair treatment girls receive in the family as well as their lack of access to healthcare and education. The initiative also attempts to raise consciousness about harmful traditional practices such as dowry, sexual harassment and early marriage.

In Africa, UNICEF has launched a radio program called the Sara Adolescent Girl Communication Initiative in ten eastern and southern African countries. The program implores its listeners to keep girls in school. It also cover topics such as HIV/AIDS, domestic responsibilities for females, Female Genital Mutilation and early marriage. For more information about UNICEF programs focused on early marriage, visit web.