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WHAT IS CHILD MARRIAGE AND WHERE DOES IT OCCUR?
The United Nations (UN) Convention
on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 unless
adulthood is legally attained earlier under the applicable country law. Thus,
with some exceptions, "child marriages" are generally understood to mean
marriages taking place before age 18.1,2 This brief focuses on the
betrothal and marriage of girls ages 14 and younger, who are especially
vulnerable to violations of their health and rights, and considers such
marriages forced because girls this young rarely have the legal capacity
or the personal agency to disobey their elders or to give or withhold their
Worldwide, marriage laws and
practices are diverse. In most developing countries, between 20 percent and 70
percent of young women marry (or start living with a partner) before age 18
(see table).3,4 In many countries, the arranged marriage of
girls at or before puberty in order to "protect their virginity" or the
family's "honor," or to increase their "exchange value" was never widely
practiced; in others, it is common among some groups. Socioeconomic factors
also play a role. Parents may feel "forced" to marry their daughter early
because they fear for her safety and economic security.
While some marriages of adolescents
ages 15 and over also occur against their will, thus violating their rights,
others are initiated by young people themselves or with their consent.
Understanding child marriage requires an understanding of the causes, meanings,
and consequences of these marriages, and the degree of coercion or choice
EARLY MARRIAGE JEOPARDIZES GIRLS'
Child marriage is the major cause worldwide of pregnancies before age 15. In
most of the developing world, 90 percent of girls who give birth before age 18
are married.6 Young brides typically become sexually active as
soon as they are married, sometimes before their first menstruation.7
Often living in their husband's household and community, they face intense pressures
to bear children as soon as possible, with potentially disastrous
- Because their bodies (bone structure, pelvis,
reproductive organs) are not yet fully developed, girls ages 14 and
younger run a very high risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth
compared with older adolescents.3
- Prolonged and obstructed labor, which is common among
pregnant young adolescents, can lead to hemorrhage, severe infection, and
maternal death. This is especially true for girls who experience
additional pregnancy-related complications such as eclampsia. Those who
survive may suffer from obstetric fistula,a debilitating condition that
causes chronic incontinence and results in shame and social isolation.8
Girls who are married young are also
more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS.
For example, in Kisumu, Kenya, HIV infection rates are nearly 33 percent among
ages 15 - 19, compared with 22 percent among unmarried, sexually-active girls
of the same age.9
- Girls' physiological vulnerability due to the small
size, inelasticity, and lack of lubrication of the vagina and cervix is
compounded by their exposure to frequent, unprotected, and sometimes
forced sexual intercourse within marriage; lack of information about STIs,
including HIV; and inability to negotiate their own protection.9,10
- Throughout countries of Africa and Latin America, more
than 80 percent of adolescent girls ages 15 - 19 who report having
unprotected sex in the previous week are married.9
- The average age gap between young brides and the men
they marry reaches eight to ten years or more in some countries.3 The
older the husband, the more likely it is that he has had multiple sexual
partners and may be HIV-positive.9,10
GIRLS MARRIED AT 14 OR YOUNGER
Girls who are married at a very
young age experience related educational, social, and personal disadvantages
compared with those who marry later, including:1,2,6
- greater control over the young bride by her husband and
his family, including restrictions on her freedom of movement and her
capacity to seek health care and family planning services;
- increased likelihood that she will experience domestic
violence and sexual abuse;
- little if any schooling and little possibility of
pursuing educational opportunities;
- limited capacity to enter the paid labor force and earn
an independent income;
- greater personal insecurity in the face of the
possibility of divorce or early widowhood; and
- social isolation from her own family, friends, and
other social networks.
THE LAWS OF SOME COUNTRIES PERMIT
In 1994, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women issued a nonbinding recommendation that countries
adopt a minimum age for marriage of 18 years for both sexes.11
Yet the marriage laws of developing
countries vary widely. The most common minimum age at which a young person who
wishes to marry may do so without obtaining parental consent is 18
years. Virtually all developing countries permit earlier marriages with
the consent of parents, legal guardians, or judicial or religious authorities,
however, often without specifying any minimum age or requiring the consent of
the underage bride or groom.12 Notably, marriages before age 15 or
16 violate the laws setting a minimum age for a young person's consent to sex
in most countries.13
Exceptions to legal statutes are
often made for religious laws or customary practices. For example, in Niger,
the civil code prohibits the marriage of boys under 18 and girls under 15.
According to observers, the code is "virtually never applied" due to the
existence of two other legal systems, one judicial and the other Islamic, which
allow marriage at younger ages.12
Even without these exceptions, laws
regulating minimum age at marriage may be ignored or easily circumvented. A
girl may be married in a traditional ceremony long before the union is
registered withcivil authorities (if it is registered at all), or the ages may
be falsified in the absence of birth certificatesor other documentation.
MULTIPLE APPROACHES ARE NEEDED TO
ELIMINATE CHILD MARRIAGE
Interventions are needed to prevent
or eliminate the forced marriage of girls ages 14 and younger; to help ensure a
safe passage to marriage and adulthood for all girls; and to support girls who
are already married. These actions include (but are by no means limited to):1,2,3,14
- Advocate for governments to set a minimum legal age at
marriage of 18 years without the requirement of parental consent for young
people who wish to marry, and at least 15 years with the free consent of
both parties and the consent of parents, guardians, or judicial
authorities. Safeguards must be included in the law and its implementation
to ensure that both parties freely choose to marry and that "parental
consent" is not used to justify customary or religious laws or practices
that permit forced marriages.
- In those countries where the marriage of girls under
age 15 is practiced, and in all places where forced marriage occurs,
special legal and programmatic initiatives are warranted, such as
identifying and bringing cases to court, educating customary and religious
authorities, and penalizing violators.
- Strengthen marriage registration systems to require
compulsory civil registration, age confirmation, and "free and full
consent" of the bride and groom. Other government registration systems
should also be developed and/or strengthened for adolescents, including
provision of identification cards, birth certificates, health
certifications, and proof of school enrollment.
- Create incentives and promote campaigns for the
elimination of child marriage among community leaders and organizations,
stressing the benefits to girls' health and human rights, families, and
communities. Work to dispel the myth of marriage as a safety zone for
girls and women.
- Expand investments in girls' education, the quality of
teaching, the safety of school environments, and promote universal
attendance of all girls, at least up to age 15. Eliminate school fees and
provide incentives for parents to send their daughters to school.
- Support comprehensive sexuality education programs in schools
and communities that begin early in primary school and continue through
adolescence. These programs should stress human rights and gender
equality, including the right to refuse marriage.
- Provide vocational training and financial literacy
programs, both in schools and also for out-of-school girls ages 10-14, to
facilitate their income-earning capacity and employment now or later.
Establish safegirls-only spaces in schools and clubs for girls who are out
of school and may already be married.
- Invest in the sexual and reproductive health of young
adolescent girls, both married and unmarried, by providing comprehensive
reproductive health care that is accessible to girls of all ages and
includes family planning and HIV prevention services, pregnancy and
delivery care, and information and education on sexual and reproductive
Each of these actions promotes the
health and well-being of young adolescent girls and contributes to the
elimination of child marriage.
We are grateful to reviewers Mairo
Bello, Judith Bruce, and Dina Siddiqi.
For more information on adolescents,
please visit our Information Library at: http://iwhc.nonprofitsoapbox.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3241&Itemid=495
1 International Planned Parenthood Federation, United
Nations Population Fund, and Global Coalition on Women and AIDS. 2005. Ending
child marriage: a guide for global action. London: IPPF.
2 International Center for Research in Women. 2005. Too
young to wed: education & action toward ending child marriage.
Washington DC: ICRW.
3 Lloyd, Cynthia B., ed. 2005. Growing up global: the
changing transitions to adulthood in developing countries. Washington DC:
National Academies Press.
4 United Nations, Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. 2000. World
marriage patterns 2000. Wall chart. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/worldmarriage/worldmarriagepatterns2000.pdf
5 Bunting, Annie. 2005. Stages of development: marriage
of girls and teens as an international human rights issue. Social and
Legal Studies 14(2):17-38.
6 Haberland, Nicole, Eric L. Chong, and Hillary J.
Bracken. 2006. A world apart: the disadvantage and social isolation of married
adolescent girls. Brief based on background paper prepared for the
WHO/UNFPA/Population Council Technical Consultation on Married Adolescents. New
York: The Population Council.
7 Duncan, M.E. et al. 1990. First coitus before menarche and
the risk of sexually transmitted disease. The Lancet 335:338-340.
8 Cook, Rebecca J., Bernard M. Dickens, and S.
Syed. 2004. Obstetric fistula: the challenge to human rights. International
Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 87:72-77.
9 Clark, Shelley, Judith Bruce, and Annie Dude. 2006.
Protecting young women from HIV/AIDS: the case against child and adolescent
marriage. International Family Planning Perspectives 32(2):79-88.
10 Clark, Shelley. 2004. Early marriage and HIV risks in
Sub-Saharan Africa. Studies in Family Planning 35(3):149-160.
11 Women's Human Rights Resources. 2004. What is the accepted
age of marriage in international conventions? http://www.law-lib.utoronto/ca.Diana/age.htm.
12 Melchiorre, Angela. 2004. At what age are school
children employed, married and taken to court? 2nd ed.
Copenhagen: The Right to Education Project. http://www.right-to-education.org/content/age/index.html.
13 AVERT (formerly AIDS Education and Research Trust).
2005. Worldwide ages of consent [to sex]. West Sussex, UK: AVERT. http://www.avert.org/aofconsent.htm.
14 Bruce, Judith. 2007. The girls left behind: out
of the box and out of reach. Presentation at "Preventing AIDS in Women Starts
with Counting Girls," a Global Health Council Policy Series Event. New York:
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