Child marriage

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Child marriages were common in history. Princess Emilia of Saxony in 1533, at age 16 married George the Pious, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, then aged 48 years.

Child marriage is a formal marriage or informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18.[1][2] The legally prescribed marriageable age in some jurisdictions is below 18 years, especially in the case of girls; and even when the age is set at 18 years, many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy. In certain countries, even when the legal marriage age is 18, cultural traditions take priority over legislative law.[3] Child marriage affects both boys and girls, though the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of whom are in poor socioeconomic situations.[4]

Child marriage is related to child betrothal, and it includes civil cohabitation and court approved early marriages after teenage pregnancy.[5][6] In many cases, only one marriage-partner is a child, usually the female. Causes of child marriages include poverty, bride price, dowry, cultural traditions, laws that allow child marriages, religious and social pressures, regional customs, fear of remaining unmarried, illiteracy, and perceived inability of women to work for money.[2][7]

Child marriages were common throughout history for a variety of reasons, including poverty, insecurity, as well as for political and financial reasons. Today, child marriage is still fairly widespread in developing countries, such as parts of Africa,[8][9] South Asia,[10] Southeast Asia,[11][12] West Asia,[13][14] Latin America,[13] and Oceania.[15] The incidence of child marriage has been falling in most parts of the world. The countries with the highest observed rates of child marriages below the age of 18 are Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic, with a rate above 60%.[16] Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali and Ethiopia were the countries with child marriage rates greater than 20% below the age of 15, according to 2003-2009 surveys.[17][18]


Presentation of Marie Antoinette to Louis Auguste at Versailles, before their marriage. She was married at age 15, on 16 May 1770.

Historically, child marriage was common around the world. The practice began to be questioned in the 20th century, with the age of individuals' first marriage increasing in many countries and most countries increasing the minimum marriage age.

In ancient and medieval societies, it was common for girls to be betrothed at or even before puberty.[19][20] As Friedman claims, "arranging and contracting the marriage of a young girl were the undisputed prerogatives of her father in ancient Israel." Most girls were married before the age of 15, often at the start of their puberty.[21] In the middle ages the age at marriage seems to have been around puberty throughout the Jewish world.[22]

Ruth Lamdan writes: “The numerous references to child marriage in the 16th- century Responsa literature and other sources, shows that child marriage was so common, it was virtually the norm. In this context, it is important to remember that in halakha, the term ‘minor’ refers to a girl under twelve years and a day. A girl aged twelve and a half was already considered an adult in all respects.”[23]

In Greece, early marriage and motherhood for girls was encouraged.[24] Even boys were expected to marry in their teens. With an average life expectancy between 40 to 45 years, early marriages and teenage motherhood was typical. In Ancient Rome, girls married above the age of 12 and boys above 14.[25] In the Middle Ages, under English civil laws that were derived from Roman laws, marriages before the age of 16 were common. In Imperial China, child marriage was the norm.[26][27]


Most religions, over history, influenced the marriageable age. For example, Christian ecclesiastical law forbade marriage of a girl before the age of puberty.[28] Hindu vedic scriptures mandated the age of a girl's marriage to be adulthood which they defined as three years after the onset of puberty.[29] Jewish scholars and rabbis strongly discouraged marriages before the onset of puberty,[21] but at the same time, in exceptional cases, girls ages 3 through 12 (the legal age of consent according to halakha) might be given in marriage by her father.[30][31]

Some apocryphal accounts state that at the time of her betrothal to Joseph, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was 12–14 years old, but such accounts are unreliable.[32]

Historically within the Catholic Church, prior to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the minimum age for a dissoluble betrothal (sponsalia de futuro) was 7 years in the contractees. The minimum age for a valid marriage was puberty, or nominally 14 for males and 12 for females.[33] The 1917 Code of Canon Law raised the minimum age for a valid marriage at 16 for males and 14 for females.[34] The 1983 Code of Canon Law maintained the minimum age for a valid marriage at 16 for males and 14 for females.[35](c. 1083 §1)[lower-alpha 1]

Some Islamic marriage practices have permitted marriage of girls below the age of 10, because Shariat law is based in part on the life and practices of Muhammad, the Prophet, as described in part in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. The Prophet married Aisha, his third wife, when she was about age six,[37] and consummated the marriage when she was about age nine.[38][39] Some mainstream Islamic scholars have suggested that it is not the chronological age that matters; marriageable age under Muslim religious law is the age when the guardians of the girl feel she has reached sexual maturity. Such determination of sexual maturity is a matter of subjective judgment, and there is a strong belief among most Muslims and scholars, based on Sharia, that marrying a girl less than 13 years old is an acceptable practice for Muslims.[40][41][42]

By gender

Christian child marriage in the Middle Ages


Boys are sometimes married as children, although according to UNICEF, "girls are disproportionately the most affected".[43] Research on the effects of child marriage on underage boys is small. As of September 2014, 156 million living men were married as underage boys.[44]


Child marriage has lasting consequences on girls, from their health, education and social development perspectives. These consequences last well beyond adolescence.[45] One of the most commons causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in developing countries was pregnancy and child birth.[46] In Niger, which is estimated as having the highest rate of child marriage in the world, about 3 in 4 girls marry before their 18th birthday.[47][48]

Causes of child marriage

According to UNFPA, factors that promote and reinforce child marriage include poverty and economic survival strategies; gender inequality; sealing land or property deals or settling disputes; control over sexuality and protecting family honour; tradition and culture; and insecurity, particularly during war, famine or epidemics.[49] Other factors include family ties in which marriage is a means of consolidating powerful relations between families.[49]

Dowry and brideprice

A traditional, formal presentation of the bride price at a Thai engagement ceremony.

Providing a girl with a dowry at her marriage is an ancient practice which continues in some parts of the world. This requires parents to bestow property on the marriage of a daughter, which is often an economic challenge for many families. The difficulty to save and preserve wealth for dowry was common, particularly in times of economic hardship, or persecution, or unpredictable seizure of property and savings for discriminatory taxes such as Jizya. These difficulties pressed families to betroth their girl, irrespective of her age, as soon as they had the resources to pay the dowry. Thus, Goitein notes that European Jews would marry their girls early, once they had collected the expected amount of dowry.[50]

A bride price is the amount paid by the groom to the parents of a bride for them to consent to him marrying their daughter. In some countries, the younger the bride, the higher the price she may fetch.[51][52] This practice creates an economic incentive where girls are sought and married early by her family to the highest bidder. Child marriages of girls is a way out of desperate economic conditions, or simply a source of income to the parents.[53][54][55] Bride price is another cause of child marriage and child trafficking.[2][7][56][57]

Persecution, forced migration, and slavery

Social upheavals such as wars, major military campaigns, forced religious conversion, taking natives as prisoners of war and converting them into slaves, arrest and forced migrations of people often made a suitable groom a rare commodity. Bride's families would seek out any available bachelors and marry them to their daughters, before events beyond their control moved the boy away. Persecution and displacement of Roma and Jewish people in Europe, colonial campaigns to get slaves from various ethnic groups in West Africa across the Atlantic for plantations, Islamic campaigns to get Hindu slaves from India across Afghanistan's Hindu Kush as property and for work, were some of the historical events that increased the practice of child marriage before the 19th century.[50][58][59]

A New York Times report and other scholars claim the origin of child marriages in India to be Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. The invaders raped unmarried Hindu girls or carried them off as booty, prompting Hindu communities to marry off their daughters early to protect them.[60][61][62] Similarly, among Sephardi Jewish communities, child marriages became frequent from 10th to 13th century as Muslim invasion and rule spread in Spain. This practice intensified after the Jewish community was expelled from Spain, and resettled in the Ottoman Empire. Child marriages among the Eastern Sephardic Jews continued through the 19th century in Islamic majority regions.[63][64][65]

Fear, poverty, social pressures and sense of protection

English stage actress Ellen Terry was married at age 16 to George Frederic Watts who was 46 years old, a marriage her parents thought would be advantageous; later she said she was uncomfortable being a child bride. Terry died at the age of 81, in 1928.

A sense of social insecurity has been a cause of child marriages across the world. For example, in Nepal, parents fear likely social stigma if grown-up adult girls (past 18 years) stay at home. Other fear of crime such as rape, which not only would be traumatic but may lead to less acceptance of the girl if she becomes victim of a crime.[66] For example, girls may not be seen as eligible for marriage if they are not virgins.[67] In other cultures, the fear is that an unmarried girl may engage in illicit relationships,[68] or elope causing a permanent social blemish to her siblings, or that the impoverished family may be unable to find bachelors for grown up girls in their economic social group. Such fears and social pressures have been proposed as causes that lead to child marriages.

Extreme poverty may make daughters an economic burden on the family, which may be relieved by their early marriage,[69] to the benefit of the family as well as the girl herself. Poor parents may have few alternatives they can afford for the girls in the family; they often view marriage as a means to ensure their daughter's financial security and to reduce the economic burden of a growing adult on the family.[3][70] Child marriage can also be seen as means of ensuring a girl's economic security, particularly if she lacks family members to provide for her.[71] In reviews of Jewish community history, scholars[72][73][74] claim poverty, shortage of grooms, uncertain social and economic conditions were a cause for frequent child marriages.

Drawings by young Syrian refugee girls in a community centre in southern Lebanon promote the prevention of child marriage.

An additional factor causing child marriage is the parental belief that early marriage offers protection. Parents feel that marriage provides their daughter with a sense of protection from sexual promiscuity and safe from sexually transmitted infections.[3][52] However, in reality, young girls tend to marry older men, placing them at an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Married girls are more likely than unmarried girls to become infected with HIV or the human papilloma virus (‘HPV’).

Protection through marriage may play a specific role in conflict settings. Families may have their young daughters marry members of an armed group or military in hopes that she will be better protected. Girls may also be taken by armed groups and forced into marriages.[71]

Religion and civil law

Although the general marriageable age is 18 in the majority of countries, most jurisdictions allow for exceptions for underage youth with parental and/or judicial consent.[49] Such laws are neither limited to developing countries, nor to state religion. In some countries a religious marriage by itself has legal validity, while in others it does not, as civil marriage is obligatory. For Catholics incorporated into the Latin Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law sets the minimum age for a valid marriage at 16 for males and 14 for females.[35](c. 1083 §1)[lower-alpha 1] In 2015, Spain raised its minimum marriageable age to 16 from the previous 14.[75] In Mexico, marriage under 18 is allowed with parental consent, from age 14 for girls and age 16 for boys.[76] In Ukraine, in 2012, the Family Code was amended to equalize the marriageable age for girls and boys to 18, with courts being allowed to grant permission to marry from age 16-years if it is established that the marriage is in the best interest of the youth.[77] Many states in the USA permit child marriages, with court's permission. Since 2015, the minimum marriageable age throughout Canada is 16. In Canada the age of majority is set by province/territory at 18 or 19, so minors under this age have additional restrictions (i.e. parental and court consent). Under the Criminal Code, Art. 293.2 Marriage under age of 16 years reads: Everyone who celebrates, aids or participates in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons being married is under the age of 16 years is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.[78] The Civil Marriage Act also states: 2.2 No person who is under the age of 16 years may contract marriage.[79] In the UK, marriage is allowed for 16–17 years old with parental consent in England and Wales as well as in Northern Ireland, and even without parental consent in Scotland.[80] However, a marriage of a person under 16 is void under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.[81] The United Nations Population Fund stated the following:[49]

"In 2010, 158 countries reported that 18 years was the minimum legal age for marriage for women without parental consent or approval by a pertinent authority. However, in 146 countries, state or customary law allows girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities; in 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent. In contrast, 18 is the legal age for marriage without consent among males in 180 countries. Additionally, in 105 countries, boys can marry with the consent of a parent or a pertinent authority, and in 23 countries, boys under age 15 can marry with parental consent."

Lower legally allowed marriage age does not necessarily cause high rates of child marriages. However, there is a correlation between restrictions placed by laws and the average age of first marriage. In the United States, per 1960 Census data, 3.5% of girls married before the age of 16, while an additional 11.9% married between 16 and 18. States with lower marriage age limits saw higher percentages of child marriages.[25] This correlation between higher age of marriage in civil law and observed frequency of child marriages breaks down in countries with Islam as the state religion. In Islamic nations, many countries do not allow child marriage of girls under their civil code of laws. But, the state recognized Sharia religious laws and courts in all these nations have the power to override the civil code, and often do. UNICEF reports that the top five nations in the world with highest observed child marriage rates — Niger (75%), Chad (72%), Mali (71%), Bangladesh (64%), Guinea (63%) — are Islamic majority countries.[16]

Politics and financial relationships

Child marriage in 1697 of Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, age 12 to Louis, heir apparent of France age 15. The marriage created a political alliance.

Child marriages may depend upon socio-economic status. The aristocracy in some cultures, as in the European feudal era tended to use child marriage as a method to secure political ties. Families were able to cement political and/or financial ties by having their children marry.[82] The betrothal is considered a binding contract upon the families and the children. The breaking of a betrothal can have serious consequences both for the families and for the betrothed individuals themselves.

Child marriage by region

A UNFPA report stated that, “For the period 2000-2011, just over one third (an estimated 34 per cent) of women aged 20 to 24 years in developing regions were married or in union before their eighteenth birthday. In 2010 this was equivalent to almost 67 million women. About 12 per cent of them were married or in union before age 15.”[49] The prevalence of child marriage varies substantially among countries.[49]


Poster against child and forced marriage

According to UNICEF, Africa has the highest incidence rates of child marriage, with over 70% of girls marrying under the age of 18, in three nations.[16] Niger has one of the highest rates of early marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. Among Nigerian women between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, 76% reported marrying before the age of 18 and 28% reported marrying before the age of fifteen.[83] This UNICEF report is based on data that is derived from a small sample survey between 1995 and 2004, and the current rate is unknown given lack of infrastructure and in some cases, regional violence.[84]

African countries have enacted marriageable age laws to limit marriage to a minimum age of 16 to 18, depending on jurisdiction. In Ethiopia, Chad and Niger, the legal marriage age is 15, but local customs and religious courts have the power to allow marriages below 12 years of age.[85] Child marriages of girls in West Africa and Northeast Africa are widespread.[86] Additionally, poverty, religion, tradition, and conflict make the rate of child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa very high in some regions.[52][87]

In many tribal systems a man pays a bride price to the girl's family in order to marry her (comparable to the customs of dowry and dower). In many parts of Africa, this payment, in cash, cattle, or other valuables, decreases as a girl gets older. Even before a girl reaches puberty, it is common for a married girl to leave her parents to be with her husband. Many marriages are related to poverty, with parents needing the bride price of a daughter to feed, clothe, educate, and house the rest of the family. In Mali, the female:male ratio of marriage before age 18 is 72:1; in Kenya, 21:1.[52]

The various reports indicate that in many Sub-Saharan countries, there is a high incidence of marriage among girls younger than 15. Many governments have tended to overlook the particular problems resulting from child marriage, including obstetric fistulae, premature births, stillbirth, sexually transmitted diseases (including cervical cancer), and malaria.[52]

In parts of Ethiopia and Nigeria many girls are married before the age of 15, some as young as 7.[83] In parts of Mali 39% of girls are married before the age of 15. In Niger and Chad, over 70% of girls are married before the age of 18.[52]

As of 2006, 15-20% of school dropouts in Nigeria were the result of child marriage.[88] In 2013, Nigeria attempted to change Section 29, subsection 4 of its laws and thereby prohibit child marriages. This was opposed by Islamic states of Nigeria, who called any attempts to prohibit child marriages as un-Islamic. Christianity and Islam are practiced by roughly 50%-50% of its population respectively, and the country continues with personal laws from its British colonial era laws, where child marriages are forbidden for its Christians and allowed for its Muslims.[89][90] Child marriage is a divisive topic in Nigeria and widely practiced. In northern states, predominantly Muslim, over 50% of the girls marry before the age of 15.[91]

In 2015, Malawi passed a law banning child marriage, which raises the minimum age for marriage to 18.[92] This major accomplishment came following years of effort by the Girls Empowerment Network campaign, which ultimately led to tribal and traditional leaders banning the cultural practice of child marriage.[93]

In Morocco, child marriage is a common practice. Over 41,000 marriages every year involve child brides.[94] Before 2003, child marriages did not require a court or state's approval. In 2003, Morocco passed the family law (Moudawana) that raised minimum age of marriage for girls from 14 to 18, with the exception that underage girls may marry with the permission of the government recognized official/court and girl's guardian.[95][96] Over the 10 years preceding 2008, requests for child marriages have been predominantly approved by Morocco's Ministry for Social Development, and have increased (~ 29% of all marriages).[94][97] Some child marriages in Morocco are a result of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, a law that allows rapists to avoid punishment if they marry their underage victims.[98][99] Article 475 was amended in January 2014 after much campaigning, and rapists can legally no longer avoid sentencing by marrying their victim.[100]

In South Africa the law provides for respecting the marriage practices of traditional marriages, whereby a person might be married as young as 12 for females and 14 for males.[52] Early marriage is cited as "a barrier to continuing education for girls (and boys)". This includes absuma (arranged marriages set up between cousins at birth in local Islamic ethnic group), bride kidnapping and elopement decided on by the children.[101]

A 2015 Human Rights Watch report stated that in Zimbabwe, one-third of women aged between 20 and 49 years old had married before reaching the age of 18.[102] In January 2016, two women who had been married as children brought a court case requesting a change in the legal age of marriage to the Constitutional Court,[103] with the result that the court declared that 18 is to be the minimum age for a legal marriage for both men and women (previously the legal age had been 16 for women and 18 for men). The law took effect immediately, and was hailed by a number of human rights, women's rights, medical and legal groups as a landmark ruling for the country.[104]

Asia and Oceania

Child marriage in India. In 1900, Rana Prathap Kumari age 12 married Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV age 16. Two years later, he was recognized as the King of Mysore under British India.

More than half of all child marriages occur in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.[105] There was a decrease in the rates of child marriage across South Asia from 1991 to 2007, but the decrease was observed among young adolescent girls and not girls in their late teens. Some scholars[106] believe this age-specific reduction was linked to girls increasingly attending school until about age 15 and then getting married.


According to UNICEF's "State of the World's Children-2009" report, 47% of India's women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56% marrying before age 18 in rural areas.[107] The report also showed that 40% of the world's child marriages occur in India.[108] As with Africa, this UNICEF report is based on data that is derived from a small sample survey in 1999.[109] The latest available UNICEF report for India uses 2004-2005 household survey data, on a small sample, and other scholars[105] report lower incidence rates for India. According to Raj et al., the 2005 small sample household survey data suggests 22% of girls ever married aged 16–18, 20% of girls in India were married between 13-16, and 2·6% were married before age 13. According to 2011 nationwide census of India, the average age of marriage for women in India is 21.[110] The child marriage rates in India, according to a 2009 representative survey, dropped to 7%.[111] In its 2001 demographic report, the Census of India stated zero married girls below age 10, 1.4 million married girls out of 59.2 million girls in the age 10-14, and 11.3 million married girls out of 46.3 million girls in the age 15-19 (which includes 18-19 age group).[112] For 2011, the Census of India reports child marriage rates dropping further to 3.7% of females aged less than 18 being married.[113]

The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was passed during the tenure of British rule on Colonial India. It forbade the marriage of a male younger than 21 or a female younger than 18 for Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and most people of India. However, this law did not and currently does not apply to India's 165 million Muslim population, and only applies to India's Hindu, Christian, Jain, Sikh and other religious minorities. This link of law and religion was formalized by the British colonial rule with the Muslim personal laws codified in the Indian Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937. The age at which India's Muslim girls can legally marry, according to this Muslim Personal Law, is 9, and can be lower if her guardian (wali) decides she is sexually mature.[114][115] Over the last 25 years, All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other Muslim civil organizations have actively opposed India-wide laws and enforcement action against child marriages; they have argued that Indian Muslim families have a religious right to marry a girl aged 15 or even 12.[116] Several states of India claim specially high child marriage rates in their Muslim and tribal communities.[117][118] India, with a population of over 1.2 billion, has the world's highest total number of child marriages. It is a significant social issue. As of 2016, the situation has been legally rectified by The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.

According to "National Plan of Action for Children 2005", published by Indian government's Department of Women and Child Development, set a goal to eliminate child marriage completely by 2010. In 2006, "The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006" was passed to prohibit solemnization of child marriages. This law states that men must be at least 21 years of age and women must but be at least 18 years of age to marry.

Some Muslim organizations planned to challenge the new law in the Supreme Court of India.[119] In latter years, various High courts in India - including the Gujarat High Court,[120] the Karnataka High Court[121] and the Madras High Court[122] - have ruled that the act prevails over any personal law (including Muslim personal law).


According to two 2013 reports, over 50% of all marriages in Pakistan involve girls less than 18 years old.[123][124] Another UNICEF report claims 70 per cent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 16.[125] As with India and Africa, the UNICEF data for Pakistan is from a small sample survey in the 1990s.

The exact number of child marriages in Pakistan below the age of 13 is unknown, but rising according to the United Nations.[126] Andrew Bushell claims rate of marriage of 8- to 13-year-old girls exceeding 50% in northwest regions of Pakistan.[127]

Another custom in Pakistan, called swara or vani, involves village elders solving family disputes or settling unpaid debts by marrying off girls. The average marriage age of swara girls is between 5 and 9.[125][128] Similarly, the custom of watta satta has been cited[129] as a cause of child marriages in Pakistan.

According to Population Council, 35% of all females in Pakistan become mothers before they reach the age of 18, and 67% have experienced pregnancy — 69% of these have given birth — before they reach the age of 19.[130] Less than 4% of married girls below the age of 19 had some say in choosing her spouse; over 80% were married to a near or distant relative. Child marriage and early motherhood is common in Pakistan.[131]


Child marriage rates in Bangladesh are amongst the highest in the world.[16] Every 2 out of 3 marriages involve child marriages. According to statistics from 2005, 49% of women then between 25 and 29 were married by the age of 15 in Bangladesh.[83] According to the "State of the World's Children-2009" report, 63% of all women aged 20–24 were married before they were 18.[citation needed] According to a 2008 study, for each additional year a girl in rural Bangladesh is not married she will attend school an additional 0.22 years on average.[132] The later girls were married, the more likely they were to utilize preventative health care.[132] Married girls in the region were found to have less influence on family planning, higher rates of maternal mortality, and lower status in their husband's family than girls who married later.[132]

Mia's Law was enacted in 2006 to protect child brides from abuse following the torture and murder of Mia Armador, an 11-year-old who was killed by her abusive 48-year-old husband. This law requires all marriages under 13 to require special government permission.[133] The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is making progress in increasing women's education and employment opportunities. This, combined with specific education about child marriage and cooperation with religious leaders, is hoped to decrease child marriage.[citation needed]


UNICEF reported that 28.8% of marriages in Nepal were child marriages as of 2011.[134] A UNICEF discussion paper determined that 79.6 percent of Muslim girls in Nepal, 69.7 percent of girls living in hilly regions irrespective of religion, and 55.7 percent of girls living in other rural areas, are all married before the age of 15. Girls who were born into the highest wealth quintile marry about two years later than those from the other quintiles.[135]

Middle East

A 2013 report claims 53% of all married women in Afghanistan were married before age 18, and 21% of all were married before age 15. Afghanistan's official minimum age of marriage for girls is 15 with her father's permission.[136] In all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, the customary practice of ba'ad is another reason for child marriages; this custom involves village elders, jirga, settling disputes between families or unpaid debts or ruling punishment for a crime by forcing the so-called guilty family to give their 5- to 12-year-old girls as a wife. Sometimes a girl is forced into child marriage for a crime her uncle or distant relative is alleged to have committed.[137][138]

Over half of Yemeni girls are married before 18, some by the age eight.[139][140] Yemen government's Sharia Legislative Committee has blocked attempts to raise marriage age to either 15 or 18, on grounds that any law setting minimum age for girls is un-Islamic. Yemeni Muslim activists argue that some girls are ready for marriage at age 9.[141][142] According to HRW, in 1999 the minimum marriage age 15 for women was abolished; the onset of puberty, interpreted by conservatives to be at age nine, was set as a requirement for consummation of marriage.[143] In practice "Yemeni law allows girls of any age to wed, but it forbids sex with them until the indefinite time they're 'suitable for sexual intercourse"[139] As with Africa, the marriage incidence data for Yemen in HRW report is from surveys between 1990 and 2000. Current data is difficult to obtain, given regional violence.

In April 2008 Nujood Ali, a 10-year-old girl, successfully obtained a divorce after being raped under these conditions. Her case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18.[144] Later in 2008, the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood proposed to define the minimum age for marriage at 18 years. The law was passed in April 2009, with the age voted for as 17. But the law was dropped the following day following maneuvers by opposing parliamentarians. Negotiations to pass the legislation continue.[145] Meanwhile, Yemenis inspired by Nujood's efforts continue to push for change, with Nujood involved in at least one rally.[146] In September 2013, an 8-year-old girl died of internal bleeding and uterine rupture on her wedding night after marrying a 40-year-old man.[147]

The widespread prevalence of child marriage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been documented by human rights groups.[148][149] Saudi clerics have justified the marriage of girls as young as 9, with sanction from the judiciary.[150] There are no laws in place defining a minimum age of consent in Saudi Arabia, though drafts for possible laws have been created since 2011.[151]

The federal marriageable age in Turkey is 18, though local courts can authorize civil marriages by age 16.[152] Religious marriages involving brides under 18 are widespread, but have no legal standing; notably, former president Abdullah Gul married a girl of 15 when he was 30.[153] Research by the United Nations Population Fund indicates that 28.2% of marriages in Turkey — almost one in three — involve girls under 18.[154][155] In 2016, lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party introduced a bill that would have allowed prosecution of those charged with sexual abuse "without force, threat or trick" through November 16, 2016 to be postponed indefinitely if they married the victim, effectively decriminalizing nonviolent, consensual sexual acts committed within child marriages; it had no effect on abuse committed after the cutoff date. Proponents argued the bill would prevent the breakup of families when the husband is imprisoned for sex during his wife's minority, and claimed it was consistent with traditional Turkish cultural norms. Members of the parliamentary opposition alleged the bill would legalize child rape, and critics — mostly women — attacked the proposed law in street protests in Ankara, and on social media under the Twitter hashtag #thisisakid. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim sent the bill back to committee on November 22, while President Erdogan urged intraparty consensus on the matter before bringing the bill up again.[152][153]

Child marriage was also found to be prevalent among Syrian and Palestinian Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in addition to other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Marriage was seen as a potential way to protect family honor and protect a girl from rape given how common rape was during the conflict.[156] Incidents of child marriages increased in Syria and among Syrian refugees over the course of the conflict. The proportion of Syrian refugee girls living in Jordan who were married increased from 13% in 2011 to 32% in 2014.[157] Journalists Magnus Wennman and Carina Bergfeldt documented the practice, and some of its results.[158]

Southeast Asia and Oceania

A couple after celebrating their child marriage in Indonesia, about 1939.

Hill tribes girls are often married young. For the Karen people it is possible that two couples can arrange their children's marriage before the children are born.[159]

About 22% of Indonesian girls experience child marriage every year, and 12% get married before age 15, according to 2012 United Nations Population Fund report.[160] There are many reports of Muslim clerics taking multiple underage wives, some less than 12 years old. Indonesian prosecutors have attempted to stop this practice by demanding prison terms for such clerics, however local courts have issued soft sentences.[161]

A young bride at her Nikah.

In Indonesia the 1974 Law on Marriage stipulates that a woman must be at least 16 years old and a man must be at least 19 years old to marry. With the popular rise of social networking sites like Facebook underage marriage appears to be increasing in areas like Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta. Couples have reported becoming acquainted through Facebook and continuing their relationships until girls became pregnant.[162] Among the Atjeh of Sumatra girls formerly married before puberty. The husbands, though usually older, were still unfit for sexual union.[163] Among the islanders of Fiji, also, marriage took place before puberty.[163]

The Marquesas Islands have been noted for their sexual culture. Many sexual activities seen as taboo in Western cultures are viewed appropriate by the native culture. One of these differences is that children are introduced and educated to sex at a very young age. Contact with Western societies has changed many of these customs, so research into their pre-Western social history has to be done by reading antique writings. Children slept in the same room as their parents and were able to witness their parents while they had sex. Intercourse simulation became real penetration as soon as boys were physically able. Adults found simulation of sex by children to be funny. As children approached 11 attitudes shifted toward girls.[clarification needed] When a child reaches adulthood, they are educated on sexual techniques by a much older adult.

Yuri Lisyansky in his memoirs[164] reports that:

The next day, as soon as it was light, we were surrounded by a still greater multitude of these people. There were now a hundred females at least; and they practised all the arts of lewd expression and gesture, to gain admission on board. It was with difficulty I could get my crew to obey the orders I had given on this subject. Amongst these females were some not more than ten years of age. But youth, it seems, is here no test of innocence; these infants, as I may call them, rivalled their mothers in the wantonness of their motions and the arts of allurement.

Adam Johann von Krusenstern in his book[165] about the same expedition as Yuri's, reports that a father brought a 10-to 12-year-old girl on his ship, and she had sex with the crew. According to the book[166] of Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu and Étienne Marchand, 8-year-old girls had sex and other unnatural acts in public.[167][168][169][170][171]

Latin America

Child marriage is common in Latin America and the Caribbean island nations. About 29% of girls are married before age 18.[13] The child marriage incidence rates varies between the countries, with Dominican Republic, Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti and Ecuador reporting some of the highest rates in the Americas.[9] Bolivia and Guyana have shown the sharpest decline in child marriage rates as of 2012.[172] Brazil is ranked fourth in the world in terms of absolute numbers of girls married or co-habitating by age fifteen.[173] Poverty and lack of laws mandating minimum age for marriage have been cited as reasons of child marriage in Latin America.[174][175] In an effort to combat the widespread belief among poor, rural, and indigenous communities that child marriage is a route out of poverty, some NGOs are working with communities in Latin America to shift norms and create safe spaces for adolescent girls.[173]

North America


Since 2015, the minimum marriageable age throughout Canada is 16. In Canada the age of majority is set by province/territory at 18 or 19, so minors under this age have additional restrictions (i.e. parental and court consent). Under the Criminal Code, Art. 293.2 Marriage under age of 16 years reads: Everyone who celebrates, aids or participates in a marriage rite or ceremony knowing that one of the persons being married is under the age of 16 years is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.[78] The Civil Marriage Act also states: 2.2 No person who is under the age of 16 years may contract marriage.[79]

United States

Child marriage, as defined by UNICEF, is observed in the United States. The UNICEF definition of child marriage includes couples who are formally married, or who live together as a sexually active couple in an informal union, with at least one member — usually the girl — being less than 18 years old.[1] The latter practice is more common in the United States, and it is officially called cohabitation. According to a 2010 report by National Center for Health Statistics, an agency of the government of United States, 2.1% of all girls in the 15-17 age group were in a child marriage. In the age group of 15-19, 7.6% of all girls in the United States were formally married or in an informal union. The child marriage rates were higher for certain ethnic groups and states. In Hispanic groups, for example, 6.6% of all girls in the 15-17 age group were formally married or in an informal union, and 13% of the 15-19 age group were.[5] Over 350,000 babies are born to teenage mothers every year in the United States, and over 50,000 of these are second babies to teen mothers.[176]

Laws regarding child marriage vary in the different states of the United States. Generally, children 16 and over may marry with parental consent, with the age of 18 being the minimum in all but two states to marry without parental consent. Those under 16 generally require a court order in addition to parental consent.[177]

Until 2008 the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practiced child marriage through the concept of "spiritual marriage" as soon as girls were ready to bear children, as part of its polygamy practice, but laws have raised the age of legal marriage in response to criticism of the practice.[178] In 2008 the Church changed its policy in the United States to no longer marry individuals younger than the local legal age.[179][180] In 2007 church leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to statutory rape of a minor due to arranging a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man.[181] In March 2008 officials of the state of Texas believed that children at the Yearning For Zion Ranch were being married to adults and were being abused.[182] The state of Texas removed all 468 children from the ranch and placed them into temporary state custody.[182] After the Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that Texas acted improperly in removing them from the YFZ Ranch, the children were returned to their parents or relatives.[183]

Musician Jerry Lee Lewis's third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was Lewis's first cousin once removed[184][185] and was only 13 years old at the time.



Each European country has its own laws; in both the European Union and the Council of Europe the marriageable age falls within the jurisdiction of individual member states. The Istanbul convention, the first legally binding instrument in Europe in the field of violence against women and domestic violence,[186] only requires countries which ratify it to prohibit forced marriage (Article 37) and to ensure that forced marriages can be easily voided without further victimization (Article 32), but does not make any reference to a minimum age of marriage.


In April 2016, Reuters reported "Child brides sometimes tolerated in Nordic asylum centers despite bans." For example, at least 70 girls under 18 were living as married couples in Sweden; in Norway, "some" under 16 lived "with their partners". In Denmark, it was determined there were "dozens of cases of girls living with older men," prompting Minister Inger Stojberg to state she would "stop housing child brides in asylum centres."[187]


The Dutch government's National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children wrote that "between September 2015 and January 2016 around 60 child brides entered the Netherlands."[188] At least one was 14 years-old.[189][190] The Washington Post reported that asylum centres in the Netherlands were "housing 20 child brides between ages 13 and 15" in 2015.[191]


The Washington Post reported in April 2016 that "17 child brides" arrived in Belgium in 2015 and a further 7 so far in 2016. The same report added that "Between 2010 and 2013, the police registered at least 56 complaints about a forced marriage."[192]

United Kingdom

The marriageable age in Scotland is 16,[193] and no parental consent is required.[194]

In the UK girls as young as 12 have been smuggled in to be brides of men in the Muslim community, according to a 2004 report in The Guardian. These men are looking for a malleable wife that has not learnt to be independent and will not question their strict Islamic wife role. Girls trying to escape this child marriage can face death because this breaks the honor code of her husband and both families.[195]

As with the United States, underage cohabitation is observed in the United Kingdom. According to a 2005 study, 4.1% of all girls in the 15-19 age group in the UK were cohabiting (living in an informal union), while 8.9% of all girls in that age group admitted to have been in a cohabitation relation (child marriage per UNICEF definition[1]), before the age of 18. Over 4% of all underage girls in the UK were teenage mothers.[6]

In July 2014, the United Kingdom hosted its first global Girl Summit; the goal of the Summit was to increase efforts to end child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilation within a generation.[196]

Consequences of child marriage

Birth rates per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years, worldwide.

Child marriage has lasting consequences on girls, which last well beyond adolescence.[45][197] Women married in their teens or earlier, struggle with the health effects of getting pregnant at a young age and often with little spacing between children.[67] Early marriages followed by teen pregnancy also significantly increase birth complications and social isolation. In poor countries, early pregnancy limits eliminates their education options. This affects their economic independence. Girls in child marriages are more likely to suffer from domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and marital rape.[45][198]


Child marriage threatens the health and life of girls.[199][200] Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the main cause of death among adolescent girls below age 19 in developing countries. Pregnant girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women in their 20s, and girls under the age of 15 are five to seven times more likely to die during childbirth.[52] These consequences are due largely to girls' physical immaturity where the pelvis and birth canal are not fully developed. Teen pregnancy, particularly below age 15, increases risk of developing obstetric fistula, since their smaller pelvises make them prone to obstructed labor.[52] Girls who give birth before the age of 15 have an 88% risk of developing fistula.[52] Fistula leaves its victims with urine or fecal incontinence that causes lifelong complications with infection and pain.[201] Unless surgically repaired, obstetric fistulas can cause years of permanent disability, shame to mothers, and can result in being shunned by the community.[202][203] Married girls also have an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, and malaria than non-married peers or girls who marry in their 20s.[52]

Child marriage not only threatens the mother’s health, it also threatens the lives of offspring. Mothers under the age of 18 years have 35 to 55% increased risk of delivering pre-term or having a low birth weight baby than a mother who is 19 years old. In addition, infant mortality rates are 60% higher when the mother is under 18 years old. Infants born to child mothers tend to have weaker immune systems and face a heightened risk of malnutrition.[202]

Prevalence of child marriage may also be associated with higher rates of population growth, more cases of children left orphaned, and the accelerated spread of disease.[132]

Illiteracy and poverty

Child marriage often ends a girl's education, particularly in impoverished countries where child marriages are common.[204] In addition, uneducated girls are more at risk for child marriage. Girls that have only a primary education are twice as likely to marry before age 18 than those with a secondary or higher education, and girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before age 18 than those with a secondary education.[49] Early marriage impedes a young girl’s ability to continue with her education as most drop out of school following marriage[205] to focus their attention on domestic duties and having or raising children.[206] Girls may be taken out of school years before they are married due to family or community beliefs that allocating resources for girls' education is unnecessary given that her primary roles will be that of wife and mother.[71] Without education, girls and adult women have fewer opportunities to earn an income and financially provide for themselves and their children. This makes girls more vulnerable to persistent poverty if their spouses die, abandon, or divorce them.[45] Given that girls in child marriages are often significantly younger than their husbands, they become widowed earlier in life and may face associated economic and social challenges for a greater portion of their life than women who marry later.[71]

Domestic violence

Married teenage girls with low levels of education suffer greater risk of social isolation and domestic violence than more educated women who marry as adults.[52][207] Following marriage, girls frequently relocate to their husband’s home and take on the domestic role of being a wife, which often involves relocating to another village or area. This transition may result in a young girl dropping out of school, moving away from her family and friends, and a loss of the social support that she once had.[3] A husband's family may also have higher expectations for the girl's submissiveness to her husband and his family because of her youth.[67] This sense of isolation from a support system can have severe mental health implications including depression.

Large age gaps between the child and her spouse makes her more vulnerable to domestic violence and nonconsensual sexual intercourse.[208] Girls who marry as children face severe and life-threatening marital violence at higher rates.[209] Husbands in child marriages are often more than ten years older than their wives. This can increase the power and control a husband has over his wife and contribute to prevalence of spousal violence.[71] Early marriage places young girls in a vulnerable situation of being completely dependent on her husband. Domestic and sexual violence from their husbands has lifelong, devastating mental health consequences for young girls because they are at a formative stage of psychological development.[45] These mental health consequences of spousal violence can include depression and suicidal thoughts.[67] Child brides, particularly in situations such as vani, also face social isolation, emotional abuse and discrimination in the homes of their husbands and in-laws.

Women's rights

The United Nations, through a series of conventions has declared child marriage a violation of human rights. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination of Women (‘CEDAW’), the Committee on the Rights of the Child (‘CRC’), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights form the international standard against child marriage.[49] Child marriages impact violates a range of women's interconnected rights such as equality on grounds of sex and age, to receive the highest attainable standard of health, to be free from slavery, access to education, freedom of movement, freedom from violence, reproductive rights, and the right to consensual marriage.[45][210][211] The consequence of these violations impact not only the woman, but her children and broader society.[how?]


High rates of child marriage negatively impact countries' economic development because of early marriages' impact on girls' education and labor market participation.[205] Some researchers and activists note that high rates of child marriage prevent significant progress toward each of the eight Millennium Development Goals and global efforts to reduce poverty due to its effects on educational attainment, economic and political participation, and health.[205]

A UNICEF Nepal issued report noted that child marriage impacts Nepal's development due to loss of productivity, poverty, and health effects. Using Nepal Multi-Indicator Survey data, its researchers estimate that all girls delaying marriage until age 20 and after would increase cash flow among Nepali women in an amount equal to 3.87% of the country's GDP.[134] Their estimates considered decreased education and employment among girls in child marriages in addition to low rates of education and high rates of poverty among children from child marriages.

International initiatives to prevent child marriage

In December 2011 a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/66/170) designated October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child.[212] On October 11, 2012 the first International Day of the Girl Child was held, the theme of which was ending child marriage.[212]

In 2013 the first United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against child, early, and forced marriages was adopted; it recognizes child marriage as a human rights violation and pledges to eliminate the practice as part of the U.N.'s post-2015 global development agenda.[213][214][215]

In 2014 the UN's Commission on the Status of Women issued a document in which they agreed, among other things, to eliminate child marriage.[216]

The World Health Organization recommends increased educational attainment among girls, increased enforcement structures for existing minimum marriage age laws, and informing parents in practicing communities of the risks associated as primary methods to prevent child marriages.[217]

Programs to prevent child marriage have taken several different approaches. Various initiatives have aimed to empower young girls, educate parents on the associated risks, change community perceptions, support girls' education, and provide economic opportunities for girls and their families through means other than marriage. A survey of a variety of prevention programs found that initiatives were most effect when they combined efforts to address financial constraints, education, and limited employment of women.[218]

Girls in families participating in an unconditional cash transfer program in Malawi aimed at incentivizing girls' education got married and had children later than their peers who had not participated in the program. The program's effects on rates of child marriage were greater for unconditional cast transfer programs than those with conditions. Evaluators believe this demonstrated that the economic needs of the family heavily influenced the appeal of child marriage in this community. Therefore, reducing financial pressures on the family decreased the economic motivations to marry daughters off at a young age.[218]

The Haryana state government in India operated a program in which poor families were given a financial incentive if they kept their daughters in school and unmarried until age 18. Girls in families who were eligible for the program were less likely to be married before age 18 than their peers.[218]

A similar program was operated in 2004 by the Population Council and the regional government in Ethiopia's rural Amhara region. Families received cash if their daughters remained in school and unmarried during the two years of the program. They also instituted mentorship programs, livelihood training, community conversations about girls' education and child marriage, and gave school supplies for girls. After the two-year program, girls in families eligible for the program were three times more likely to be in school and one tenth as likely to be married compared to their peers.[218]

Other programs have addressed child marriage less directly through a variety of programming related to girls' empowerment, education, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy, life skills, communication skills, and community mobilization.[219]

Tipping Point Analysis

Researchers at the International Center for Research on Women found that in some communities rates of child marriage increase significantly when girls are a particular age. This "tipping point", or age at which rates of marriage increase dramatically, may occur years before the median age of marriage. Therefore, the researchers argue prevention programs should focus their programming on girls who are pre-tipping point age rather than only girls who are married before they reach the median age for marriage.[220]

Prevalence data

Percentage of women aged 20–24 who were married or in union before the age of 18 is listed in the table below. The data from International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and UNICEF, if traced all the way to the ultimate sources, is from surveys that are 10 to 20 years old. The UN data is between 10 to 15 years old.

Country % girls married before 18
ICRW-UNICEF data[221][222]
(Year of data)
 % girls married
before 18
(UN data)[223]
 Niger 76 (2012) 62
 Chad 68 (2010) 49
 Central African Republic 68 (2010) 42
 Bangladesh 65 (2011) 48
 Mali 55 (2010) 50
 Guinea 52 (2012) 46
 Malawi 50 (2010) 37
 Mozambique 48 (2011) 47
 Madagascar 41 (2012) 34
 Sierra Leone 44 (2010) 47
 Burkina Faso 52 (2010) 35
 India 47 (1999-2005) 30
 Somalia 45 (1998-2006) 38
 Nicaragua 41 (2000-2006) 32
 Zambia 42 (2002-2007) 24
 Eritrea 41 (2010) 38
 Uganda 40 (2011) 32
 Ethiopia 41 (2011) 30
   Nepal 41 (2011) 40
 Dominican Republic 41 (2009-2010) 29
 Afghanistan 40 (2012) 29

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 While canon 1083 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law sets the minimum age for a valid marriage at 16 for males and 14 for females,[35](c. 1083 §1) canon 97 defines a person younger than 18 year of age as a minor and subject to parental authority.[35](cc. 97 §1, 98 §2) The authorization of the local ordinary must precede the celebration of the marriage of a minor if the marriage "cannot be recognized or celebrated according to the norm of civil law" or if the parents of a minor are "unaware or reasonably opposed."[35](c. 1071 §1,2° and 6°) Each conference of bishops can "establish a higher age for the licit celebration of marriage."[35](c. 1083 §§1–2) Canon 1072 requires that pastors discourage "marriage before the age at which a person usually enters marriage according to the accepted practices of the region."[35](c. 1072) Edward N. Peters explains that canon 1083, "authorized episcopal conferences to recognize the concrete circumstances of marriage in their own territories and to raise the ages for licit marriages within a given nation" to more than the minimum age for a valid marriage.[36] Other canons that regulate marriage in general also apply, for example persons "who lack the sufficient use of reason" or "who suffer from a grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually to be handed over and accepted" "are incapable of contracting marriage."[35](c. 1095)


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  38. most sources suggest age at consummation as 9, and one that it may have been age 10; See: Denise Spellberg (1996), Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr, Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0231079990, pp 39-40;
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