Stephanie Sinclair

Child Marriage

Child marriage remains widespread in developing countries, disproportionately affecting girls and endangering their lives and livelihoods. Rooted in cultural tradition and poverty, the practice not only violates human rights laws but also threatens stability and economic development.

Stephanie Sinclair

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International conventions prohibit child marriage and define eighteen as the age of adulthood. These laws are based on the argument that children and adolescents are not mature enough to make choices about marriage, and that marrying too young can lead to lasting emotional, physical, and psychological harm. Moreover, development experts say child marriage stunts girls’ educational opportunities and income-earning prospects, and perpetuates poverty in communities worldwide, inhibiting progress toward national and global development goals and threatening stability. Delaying the age of marriage and investing in girls’ futures, they say, can have a multiplier effect that benefits the communities at large. 

When my parents mentioned marriage, I had no idea what ‘marriage’ even meant.
Kamla, Indian girl, married at age 13

Geography of a Problem

Child marriage transcends regional and cultural boundaries. Across developing countries, an estimated one in three girls is married before turning eighteen, and one in nine before fifteen. Analysts project that if current trends continue, 142 million girls will marry before adulthood within this decade.

The practice persists to varying degrees around the globe. The highest prevalence rates, commonly measured by the percentage of women aged twenty to twenty-four who report being married before eighteen, are found in South Asia and West and Central Africa, where an estimated two out of five girls are married as children. However, in terms of absolute numbers, India surpasses other countries by a wide margin: about 40 percent of all child marriages take place there.

Surveys of child brides conducted by the United Nations and many nongovernmental agencies paint a broad demographic portrait of young married girls:

  • Girls from rural areas are twice as likely to marry as children as those from urban areas.

  • Child brides are most likely to be from poor families. Across many countries, young married girls are most often from the poorest quintile of the income bracket.

  • Married girls are generally less educated, either for lack of opportunity or the curtailment of their schooling by early marriage.

In some countries, disparities in the prevalence of child marriage also lie along religious, ethnic, or regional lines. For instance, in Guatemala, early marriage is most common among indigenous Mayan communities.

graphic showing top 10 countries with child brides
Women age 20 to 24 who were married before 15, in thousands. Source: UNICEF Statistics and Monitoring Section, Division of Policy and Strategy (2013)
I was really in need of money and thought it was a solution for the family.
Abdul Mohammed Ali, father of a nine-year-old girl in Yemen

The Value of a Bride

Poverty, cultural norms, and the low societal value of women and girls are the primary forces that fuel early marriage, although the relative significance of each varies from community to community.


In communities where women are generally not considered viable wage earners, families often view daughters as an economic burden. Impoverished parents may decide to betroth a daughter early to avoid the cost of education—if schooling is even available for girls—and ease the financial load of caring for a child. When schooling is not available, parents have an extra incentive to marry off daughters sooner. Families sometimes marry off a child to erase debts or settle feuds.

Dowries and bride prices also factor into the timing of child marriages. In such cases, youth is seen as enhancing the value of a bride; a younger girl has more time to dedicate to her new family and bear children. In many parts of India, dowries, or money given to the groom’s family, can be lowered if the bride is younger. Bride prices, money given to the bride’s parents (a common custom in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa), rise if a bride marries at an earlier age.

Research from the World Bank, based on Demographic and Health Surveys data, shows that across countries, girls from wealthier families tend to marry at later ages, supporting the hypothesis that poverty and economic survival are drivers of early marriage. Low esteem for girls and women facilitates these transactions involving young girls.

Cultural Norms

Child marriages occur most often in patriarchal societies where parents and elders have a significant role in selecting spouses for their children and new brides are absorbed into their new families as domestic help. Girls are often married shortly after puberty to maximize their childbearing potential.

Many cultures place an emphasis on girls’ virginity, which is closely tied to a family’s honor. Parents may marry off a daughter at an early age to ensure that she marries as a virgin and to prevent out-of-wedlock births. In Northeast Africa and parts of the Middle East, child marriage frequently occurs shortly after female genital cutting, a practice that is often justified as promoting virginity and deterring sexual assault.

People of various religions and sects support early marriage, which is contentious within many religious communities. In Ethiopia, for instance, child marriage is embedded in the customs of Orthodox Christian communities like those in the Amhara region, even though the country’s Orthodox church opposes the practice.

Some Muslims who follow a conservative interpretation of sharia argue that Islam permits child marriage as the Quran specifies that girls can be married upon reaching maturity, which conservative scholars define as puberty. However, there is debate within Islam about at what age a girl reaches maturity. Many Muslim communities and Islamic scholars agree with the internationally recognized age of maturity, eighteen. Moreover, many Muslims argue against child marriage because Islam mandates that men and women should choose their partners freely, and children are unable to do so.

Islamic law allows marriage not by age but by maturity, which is attained once a girl reaches the age of puberty.
Sani Ahmed Yerima, Nigerian Senator

The Toll

Marriage forces girls into adulthood before they are emotionally or physically mature, leading to a range of harmful effects that take their heaviest toll on the youngest brides. Girls’ physical and emotional health, education, and wage-earning prospects are all jeopardized when they marry as children, and they often get little or no support if they try to leave their unions.


Child brides are often expected to bear children soon after marriage, which makes them vulnerable to pregnancy and childbirth complications, including obstetric fistula, a condition that causes chronic incontinence and occurs commonly in young girls who give birth before their bodies have matured. The World Health Organization reports that pregnancy complications remain the leading cause of death among girls aged fifteen to nineteen in low- and middle-income countries, and those girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth as are mothers aged twenty and older. Babies born to adolescent or child mothers are more likely to die than those born to mothers over age twenty. They tend to have lower birth weights and weak immune systems, and face higher risks of malnutrition.

In areas with high infection rates, early marriage makes girls more vulnerable to HIV. In Kenya and Zambia, a study found that HIV infection rates were higher among married girls than their unmarried, sexually active counterparts—girls who had more license to choose their sexual partners.

Graphics showing factors that contribute to girls' likelihood of marrying before age 18.
Source: UNFPA.

Isolating Girls

Often when girls marry they are cut off from their families and peer networks and thrust into hostile environments where they are beholden to their new husbands and in-laws. Advocates for girls’ rights say this isolation can have emotionally scarring effects, as well as violent consequences if their new families mistreat them. The typically large age gap between a child bride and her spouse makes her more vulnerable to domestic abuse and nonconsensual sex. Even those girls with the option of divorcing abusive spouses are vulnerable because they have little earning power, education, and financial support. Human rights groups have reported cases of girls facing abuse after attempting to escape their unions. Brides may also find themselves without support if they are widowed early, leaving them with little means by which to raise their families.

Marriage may also strip girls of some legal protections afforded to children; in some places, statutory rape laws do not apply to married girls. This was the case, for instance, in Morocco, where rape or sexual assault of young girls was sometimes permitted if the perpetrator married the victim. (Morocco amended this provision in January 2014).

The Education Dilemma

A shortened education is both a cause and effect of early marriage. While lack of educational opportunities may contribute to girls’ early marriage, married girls are also likely to drop out of school sooner. This restricts their wage-earning opportunities, and leaves girls dependent on their husbands and with less power in the household.

High prevalence rates of child marriage are correlated with less education for girls. A UNICEF study found that across forty-seven countries, girls with primary school education were less likely to be married than girls who had received no education. Another study by the International Center for Research on Women found that girls with no education were up to six times more likely to marry as children than girls who had received secondary education. 

The Poverty Cycle

Girls who marry early are left without the skills, knowledge, and social networks to financially support their household, which maintains their low societal status and makes their families vulnerable to an intergenerational cycle of poverty that hinders the development of their communities.

Numerous studies have linked investment in girls’ education and development to larger economic benefits. Increased education for girls is associated with lower child and maternal mortality, lower birth rates, and higher female participation in the workforce, which increases a country’s GDP and per capita income. Child marriage, then, not only has implications for the trajectory of young girls’ lives, but also economic growth.

Conflict, Crisis, and Child Marriage

Areas enduring humanitarian crises or internal conflicts face a breakdown in political and social institutions, creating a combustible environment that heightens threats to girls’ security and well-being. In places where child marriage is already rooted in culture, such conditions raise its prevalence. Most of the twenty-five countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage also rank highly on global indexes of fragility and vulnerability to natural disasters.

Crisis situations can exacerbate income inequality and poverty rates, leading families to become more desperate to stay financially afloat. Families facing insecurity may also marry off their daughters early in an attempt to protect them against violence, rape, homelessness, or starvation.

Widespread forced marriages have been documented in a number of crisis situations. During Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991 to 2002, both girls and women were abducted as “bush wives” for fighters. Likewise, Kenya’s recurring droughts (most recently in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011) contributed to a rise in child marriages as a means of survival amid food insecurity.

In these fragile conditions, marriage may be a guise for other forms of exploitation such as prostitution and trafficking. In Niger, for instance, girls have been “married” off to foreign men and then forced into prostitution or domestic servitude abroad.

I do not agree for anyone to marry a girl very early, before she is of age to be wed.
Imam Malm Magagi, Niger

Age of Consent

Several international legal conventions outlaw child marriage, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. These conventions, however, have minimal enforceability on the ground, as they largely defer to signatory countries to take action. Nevertheless, the language of these conventions establishes an international standard against child marriage.

Worldwide, eighteen is the baseline legal age of marriage, but many countries allow persons under that age to marry with the consent of parents or judicial authorities. Roughly three dozen countries allow children age fifteen or younger to get married with parental consent. Many more countries allow girls to marry with consent at younger ages than boys, highlighting that early marriage is a gendered phenomenon.

Publicized cases have cast an international spotlight on child marriage and spurred calls to legislative action. The 2008 divorce of ten-year-old Nujood Ali, a Yemeni girl married to a twenty-one-year-old man, sparked international pressure for legislative efforts to raise the country’s minimum age of marriage to seventeen, although the push was ultimately defeated.

Other countries have undergone fierce political battles to establish a minimum age for marriage. Some groups argue on religious or cultural grounds that child marriage should not be outlawed. Controversy over child marriage regulations has arisen recently in Nigeria, where in 2013 senators failed to reach a supermajority vote to strike down a constitutional provision under which married girls are considered adults. The episode spurred a backlash against child marriage throughout the country, which received support from activists around the world.

Child marriage is a social menace. It is a socioeconomic problem.
Mamta Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, India

Policy Options

Although child marriage is entrenched in some communities, development and human rights advocates are pressing to make investing in girls’ futures a policy priority. At stake, experts say, are the rights of girls’ to access education; maintain their physical and emotional health; have stable, consensual marriages; and achieve their wage-earning potential, a driver of broader economic growth.

The following is a breakdown of strategies that advocates say can be used at the international, national, and local levels to curb the practice of child marriage.

Expand Education

Access to primary and secondary education is crucial to increasing girls’ self-reliance and delaying the age of marriage. Formal schooling can help girls develop thinking and social skills, establish support networks, make informed decisions, and boost income-earning prospects. International agencies can work with local actors to pressure governments to make primary and secondary schooling compulsory, integrate life skills and sexual-health topics into lesson plans, and aid girls’ families with school enrollment and financial assistance. Outside formal schooling, a life-skills course in Marathwada, India was shown to raise girls’ median age of marriage in the area from sixteen to seventeen in two years.

Spread Awareness

Community-based programs can shift public attitudes about the roles of women and girls in society. Informational campaigns should initiate conversations among community leaders, men, and parents on the social expectations of marriage, highlighting the negative consequences of child marriage as well as alternatives. Examples include Tostan, a Senegal-based organization working to change social attitudes toward both early marriage and female genital cutting, and a group in Nepal comprising Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim religious leaders in Nepal, sponsored by UN-affiliated organizations, who collaborated on a public education campaign.

Offer Incentives

Child marriage often amounts to a financial transaction for needy families. To address their needs, development agencies can offer financial assistance or incentives to parents to encourage them to delay their daughters’ marriages. Some programs provide direct cash assistance to families on the condition that they invest in their daughters’ educations or delay their marriage age to eighteen. One such example is India’s Apni Beti Apna Dhan program, which offers bonds to newborn girls that can be redeemed only if they remain unmarried when they turn eighteen.

Expand Maternal and Reproductive Health

Services can also target married girls in need of sexual and reproductive health care. International agencies can support local health advocates and educators in providing girls with maternal care, family planning, and sexual health education, including information on sexually transmitted diseases. These agencies can also collaborate with local medical personnel to improve the quality of and access to maternal care for pregnant girls at risk of childbirth complications.

Strengthen Laws

Minimum-age marriage laws and mechanisms for their enforcement can be introduced or strengthened to uphold a standard against child marriages. These laws can tie into regulations against sexual violence and statutory rape.

Countries can take a strong first step in monitoring by requiring official registration of births and marriages. A registration law passed in Bangladesh in 2004 contributed to an increase in birth registrations from 9.8 percent to 53.6 percent over three years, and girls surveyed there frequently cited this requirement as an effective way to provide proof of age to uphold laws against child marriage.

Improve Data Collection

Data on child marriage remain limited and uneven, particularly for many countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Governments and multilateral organizations can collaborate to improve data collection on early marriage and related factors such as girls’ health, age, frequency of childbearing, education, and income contributions. They can also ensure that data is regularly updated and monitor programs and policies designed to prevent child marriage.

Raise Diplomatic Pressure

Because child marriage inhibits economic growth and development, stability, and human rights goals, advocates against the practice say that countries concerned with global development should elevate the issue as a foreign policy priority. Developed countries with a demonstrated commitment to combating child marriage—such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, and Australia—can focus on the practice as a central development problem, rather than a marginal issue, and use diplomatic means to push countries with high prevalence rates to focus on eradicating it. Moreover, they can lend support to countries that are already making efforts to prevent child marriage, such as India and Ethiopia. While highlighting early marriage in strategic discussions on security and development, governments can offer financial and technical assistance, push for initiatives to mitigate the practice and raise the issue in multilateral forums.

Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage.
Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Country Profiles

Stuart Freedman/Panos



Child Marriage Prevalence Rate: 30%


Legal Age of Marriage: 18

Stuart Freedman/Panos

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Central America, which is concentrated among indigenous Mayan groups, which make up about 40 percent of the overall population and mostly live in rural areas. In rural Guatemala, around 53 percent of women age twenty to twenty-four were married before age eighteen, and 13 percent before age fifteen, according to a 2011 Population Council study. The Mayan population comprises more than twenty indigenous groups, each with its own language. They have little access to basic services, few educational opportunities, and starkly higher rates of poverty than the nonindigenous population. 

Mayan girls tend to be socially isolated, bear children early and often, and live in extreme poverty, relative to nonindigenous Guatemalan girls. Financial pressures often cause indigenous families to marry off their girls early, after which girls tend to drop out of school. Childbirth is expected soon after marriage, and maternal mortality rates in Guatemala, which are among the highest in the region, are three times higher in indigenous populations than among non-indigenous women.

The Guatemalan government has not made the eradication of child marriage a policy priority, but independent programs have made efforts to delay the age of marriage in Mayan communities. One program, Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities), creates “safe spaces”  where adolescent Mayan girls can develop negotiation and leadership skills and access education on sexual health and gender relations. An early evaluation of the program found that participants stayed in school longer, delayed childbearing, and developed greater autonomy in making life decisions. 

Geography Photos/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Guatemalan government has not made the eradication of child marriage a policy priority, but independent programs have made efforts to delay the age of marriage in Mayan communities. One program, Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities), creates “safe spaces” where adolescent Mayan girls can develop negotiation and leadership skills and access education on sexual health and gender relations. An early evaluation of the program found that participants stayed in school longer, delayed childbearing, and developed greater autonomy in making life decisions.

Ajit Solanki/AP Photo



Child Marriage Prevalence Rate: 47%


Legal Age of Marriage: Females: 18; Males: 21

Ajit Solanki/AP Photo

Spurred by widespread poverty and centuries-old traditions, some 40 percent of the world’s child marriages occur in India. Many parents marry their daughters off young to preserve their chastity until marriage, which upholds family honor, and to protect maturing girls from predation. In some parts of the country, a shortage of girls also contributes to families betrothing their children at a young age because they believe daughters are at a higher risk of premarital sex. Because early marriage is deeply rooted in many communities across India, enormous social pressures perpetuate the practice.

India’s government has made combating child marriage a priority. The 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act punishes those who perform or promote such marriages with imprisonment or a fine of up to 100,000 rupees ($1,800). The law also allows for child marriages to be annulled and gives child brides the right to live with their in-laws until they remarry. In 2013, a state court declared that the act overrides the Muslim Personal Law, which allows girls to marry once they reach puberty, a ruling opposed by some  Muslim organizations.

Enforcement and awareness of these laws, however, remain a challenge. Few cases are brought to court, and in some areas, child marriages take place under the cover of night. 

Isabelle Cadet/AP Photo


Child Marriage Prevalence Rate: 41%


Legal Age of Marriage: 18

Isabelle Cadet/AP Photo

Child marriage in Ethiopia has declined in recent years, although the national prevalence rate remains one of the world’s highest. Child marriage in Ethiopia frequently occurs alongside female genital cutting—an estimated 74 percent of the female population has undergone the procedure. The government has taken a strong stance against both, designating them “harmful traditional practices.”

Nevertheless, regulations are widely ignored, particularly in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population resides. The Amhara and Tigray provinces in particular are known for having higher rates of child marriages than other provinces, with younger median ages of married girls. In Amhara, a strongly Orthodox Christian region, the median age of marriage for girls is fifteen.

Many customs uphold the tradition of child betrothal, with family wealth and alliances determining who girls marry and at what price. Maintaining girls’ virginity up to the time of marriage is also a strong incentive for parents to support the practice. The marriage of girls by abduction has also been known to happen, particularly in the southern rural regions.

David Snyder/Zumapress/Corbis

In some regions of Ethiopia, however, new programs have brought about declines in the prevalence of child marriage. The Berhane Hewan (“Light for Eve”) program in Amhara province has provided life skills, schooling, and sexual health education to young girls, and encouraged community dialogues to shift norms away from child marriage. The Addis Ababa–based Biruh Tesfa (“Bright Future”) program provides a safe space for girls who run away from child marriages.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


Child Marriage Prevalence Rate: 40%


Legal Age of Marriage: Females: 16; Males: 18

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Afghanistan’s deeply rooted tradition of child marriage and low social status of women have made the practice difficult to curb, and girls who try to escape their unions can often face violent repercussions. About 60 to 80 percent of child marriages are forced, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The preservation of girls’ virginity until the time of marriage as a means of upholding family honor weighs heavily in families’ decisions to marry girls early. Girls are subject to violence and “honor killings” if they are accused of having had premarital sex or refuse to follow through with their marriages.

Although maternal deaths in Afghanistan have declined significantly over the past two decades, the country remains among the twenty-five nations with the highest rates of maternal mortality, due to economic and cultural barriers women face to health care and the complications that come with young girls’ pregnancies. Access to education for girls is also rare—literacy among young women is 22 percent—and domestic abuse is common. A 2010 report found that 2,400 Afghan women commit suicide each year by self-immolation as a result of forced marriage and domestic abuse.

In 2009, a presidential decree enacted the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which instituted punishments for those who engaged in child and forced marriages and violence against women. However, a study by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that violations of the law were still largely underreported.

Mads Nissen/Panos


Child Marriage Prevalence Rate: 75%


Legal Age of Marriage: Females: 15; Males: 18

Mads Nissen/Panos

Niger faces chronic food and water insecurity and one of the world’s fastest rates of population growth, exacerbating the economic stresses faced by families nationwide. Though predominantly Muslim and ethnically diverse, child marriage persists across regions.

Early marriage is fueled in Niger by tribal traditions and widespread poverty and resource shortages across the country. Instances of child marriages have occurred in times of food and water shortages as a means for families to survive: marrying off a daughter means parents have one less mouth to feed, and in exchange they receive money that allows them to feed others.

As a major transit hub for people bound for Northern Africa and Western Europe, Niger has enabled child trafficking under the guise of marriage.

Niger’s fertility rate is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, with an average of seven children per woman. According to the UNFPA, 36 percent of girls from age fifteen to nineteen have given birth or been pregnant. Maternal mortality remains stubbornly high: one in twenty-three women faces a lifetime risk of maternal death. Women are poorly educated throughout the country, with about 85 percent of the adult female population unable to read.

The Civil Code of Niger sets the minimum age of marriage for girls at fifteen, though many areas do not adhere to this regulation. Parliamentary efforts to institute a family code, which would have prohibited forced marriage, eventually broke down in 2006, due to strong protests from some Islamist associations.

Winner of the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award, which recognizes exceptional professional journalism (Specialized Journalism Site).


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