Child marriage

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Child marriage is broadly defined as marriage before the age of 18.[1]

The practice of girls marrying at a young age is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. However, in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia, marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among some groups. There are also parts of West and East Africa and of South Asia where marriages much earlier than puberty are not unusual.

Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. They may think that child marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian. Child marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.

Gender discrimination can also underpin child marriage. Girls may be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within their husband’s household and to maximize their childbearing.[2]


Numbers vary widely on the occurance of child marriage as many are unregistered or unofficial. UNICEF survey data of over 100 countries shows that in developing nations, over 60 million women aged 20-24 were married or in unions before the age of 18. In the countries of Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Niger, more than 60% were found to have been married before 18.[2] Despite sanctions on child marriage, more than 100 million children were expected to marry between 2005-2015.[3]

International Legal Framework

Article 16.1 of United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women of 1979 (CEDAW) states that a) men and women have the same right to enter into marriage; (b) the same right to freely choose a spouse and enter that marriage with their free and full consent. Article 16.2 states: The betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage. CEDAW has not been ratified by seven UN member-states; the United States, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

Article XXI of the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child states that: "Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be eighteen years".

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child of November 20th 1989 (CRC), has been ratified by all member states of the UN except for the United States and Somalia. In terms of child marriage, the CRC is important in that Article 1: Defines a child as being ‘every human being below the age of 18 years"; Article 3: Declares that ‘in all actions concerning children… the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’; and Article 35: Declares a child’s ‘right to protection from abduction, sale, or trafficking’.[4]

Negative Effects of Child Marriage

The United Nations Population Fund typifies adolescent females who are married as having:

  • large spousal age gaps;
  • limited social support due to social isolation;
  • limited educational opportunities or no schooling options;
  • intense pressure to become pregnant;
  • an increased risk of maternal and infant mortality;
  • an increased vulnerability to HIV and other STIs;
  • restricted freedom of movement and social mobility;
  • little access to modern media;
  • lack of skill to become a viable part of the labor market.[5]


Girls living in the poorest 20 per cent of households are more likely to get married at an early age than those living in the wealthiest 20 per cent. In Peru 45 per cent of women were married by age 18 among the poorest 20 per cent, compared to 5 per cent among the richest 20 per cent.[2]


Women with primary education are significantly less likely to be married or in union as children than those who received no education. In Zimbabwe, 48 per cent of women who had attended primary school had been married by the age of 18, compared to 87 per cent of those who had not attended school. Furthermore, once entering a marriage or union, women are much less likely to receive further education.[2]


Premature pregnancies are common with young brides, and these cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.[2]

Since many married adolescents are pulled out of school at an early age, they may be unfamiliar with basic reproductive health issues. Despite the large number of married girls, policies and programs often fail to address their vulnerability to HIV or other reproductive health needs. Furthermore, while parents may see early marriage as a way to help keep their daughters from becoming infected with HIV, data indicates that 17-22 percent of 15-19 year old girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV/AIDS as opposed to 3-7 percent for their male counterparts.

Young wives often have limited autonomy or freedom of movement. Because of this, they may be unable to obtain health care because of distance, expense or the need for permission from a spouse or in-laws. These barriers can aggravate the risks of maternal mortality and morbidity for pregnant adolescents.[5]


Abuse is common in child marriages. Women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.[6]

In addition, children who refuse to marry or who choose a marriage partner against the wishes of their parents are often punished or even killed by their families in so-called ‘honor' killings.[2]

Child Marriage by Region


In France, 11% of girls are married by the age of 18.[7]

North America

In the United States, children can be married under the age of 18 with parental permission, and this age varies by state. In Texas, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, girls can marry at 14; in New Hampshire at 13; in Massachusetts and Kansas, as early as 12.[8] As many as 11% of girls in the United States are married by the age of 18.[7]

Central and South America

UNFPA estimates that in Latin America and the Caribbean, 29% of women aged 15-24 were married before the age of 18.[5] Guatemala and El Salvador have the highest rates of girls married by the age of 18, at 41% and 38% respectively.[7]


UNICEF estimates show that approximately 31 million 20-24 year old women were married under the age of 18.[2] UNFPA estimates that for Southern Asia 48% of women aged 15-24 were married before the age of 18.[5] In Afghanistan, 54% of girls are married before the age of 18, while 50% of girls in India, and 51% of girls in Bangladesh are married early.[9]


UNFPA estimates that in Africa, 42% of women aged 15-24 were married before the age of 18.[10] In Niger, 76% of girls are married before the age of 18, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a 74% occurrence.[9]

Middle East

In Yemen, 49% of girls are married by the age of 18.[7]

Early marriage data

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  1. ICRW. (2010). Child Marriage. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from International Center for Research on Women:
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 UNICEF. (2008, March 6). UNICEF Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from UNICEF:
  3. Bruce, J. (2004). The Implications of Early Marriage for HIV/AIDS Policy. Population Council/WHO/UNFPA. New York: Population Council.
  4. Hawke, A. (2001). Early Marriage: Child Spouses. UNICEF, Innocenti Digest 7. Siena, It: UNICEF.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 United Nations Population Fund. (2005). UNFPA Child Marriage Factsheet. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from UNFPA:
  6. Jenson, R. and R. Thornton. 2003. ‘Early female marriage in the developing world', Gender and Development, Vol. 11, no. 2 pp. 9-19.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Singh, S., Samara, R. (1996). Early Marriage Among Women in Developing Countries. International Family Planning Perspectives , 22 (4), 148-157.
  8. Salopek, P. (2004, Dec 12). Early Marriage Survives in the U.S. Retrieved July 1, 2010, from The Chicago Tribune:,0,2045063.story?page=2
  9. 9.0 9.1 UNAIDS, UNICEF and WHO. 2002. Young people and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis; Population Division. 2000. World Population Prospects, the 2000 Revision . New York: United Nations.
  10. United Nations Population Fund. (2005). UNFPA Child Marriage Factsheet. Retrieved June 29, 2010, from UNFPA:

See Also

Forced marriage

Family Code

Family law

Health Risks of Child Marriage

Arranged marriage

GID Variables: Family Code

External Links

India's Child Brides: Gender Bytes, November 2010.

Article Information
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