Child marriage

Child marriage

142 million girls world-wide will marry before age 18 within this decade

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. 

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.

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.

Top 10 Countries with Child Brides

Top 10 countries with child brides 

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.

The toll on victims

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.

Demographics of Child Brides

Demographics of Child Brides 

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).


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. 

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.

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.

Publicised 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.

SOURCE: Council on Foreign Relations


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