Early marriage, or child marriage, is defined as the marriage or union between two people in which one or both parties are younger than 18 years of age. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to “free and full” consent to a marriage, acknowledging that consent cannot be “free and full” when one of the individuals involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. Nonetheless, in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in poorer rural areas, girls are often committed to an arranged marriage without their knowledge or consent. Such an arrangement can occur as early as infancy. Parents see marriage as a cultural rite that protects their daughter from sexual assault and offers the care of a male guardian. Parents often feel that a young girl is an economic burden and therefore wish to marry off their young daughters before they become an economic liability.
Early Marriage Threatens Youth Reproductive Health
- Spousal age difference can make women more vulnerable to health risks and social isolation by creating power dynamics. These power dynamics can increase girls’ vulnerability to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. In addition, young married girls are more likely to be illiterate and of low social status. They tend to have no access to financial resources and restricted mobility; they are therefore less likely to leave home to socialize with others, limiting their ability to obtain information on reproductive health, contraception, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This power differential can also limit girls’ ability to negotiate contraceptive or condom use, putting them at high risk for contracting STIs and HIV.
- Early childbearing poses serious health risks for mother and child. Marriage often signals the beginning of frequent and unprotected sexual activity. Many girls under the age of 18 (and particularly girls under the age of 15) are not physically mature and therefore unprepared for sexual intercourse or childbirth. Sexual intercourse at a young age is associated with physical pain and pregnancy-related complications, such as obstetric fistula. Pregnancy-related health problems can have emotional and social consequences and pose a financial burden to the household.
Key Areas for Policy Action
- Enforce existing laws and policies. Although laws against child marriage exist in many countries, the implementation and enforcement of such laws is often weak. Technical assistance is needed to increase the number of in-country professionals who can appropriately monitor and evaluate programs to better implement, review, and update laws and policies intended to prevent child marriage. A committed multisectoral approach that integrates action plans from the health, education, legal, economic, and labor sectors can help reduce the incidence of early marriage and pregnancy.
- Provide economic incentives for delayed marriage. In certain settings and cultures, addressing the economic factors associated with early marriage, such as dowry practices, is essential to developing successful programs that delay the age of marriage among girls.
- Implement community-based mobilization programs. Advocating for changes in social attitudes and norms through multisectoral and integrated community-based programs—such as through religious institutions and associations, health institutions, other local civic organizations, and schools—are the best channels for raising awareness of the negative consequences of early marriage and the many economic, social, and health benefits of delaying marriage.
- Create safe spaces for girls. Social networks and civil society organizations play a critical role in developing sustainable safe spaces for girls to meet to share information and ideas and obtain support and guidance. Using public facilities, such as schools after hours or places of worship during non-worship hours can offer catch-up education, financial literacy instruction, savings clubs, and health services either directly or on referral.
- Support education beyond primary school. Investments must be made to support girls’ education. Evidence suggests that educated girls are less likely to agree to marry at a young age. Development programs need to be creative in implementing programs that support a girl through the critical drop-out period, along with secondary and vocational opportunities that are acceptable to the girls’ families.
- Provide safe and nonexploitative means of livelihood outside the home. Education and professional training that build the capacity of girls and young women to generate income can enable them to postpone marriage. When education is not a feasible option, income-generation programs can empower women and girls with the skills and tools to reduce their dependency on family members and gain some autonomy.
The State of Policymaking
In countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, policy makers recommend enforcing existing laws about age at marriage and implementing programs to delay marriage. Gaining the commitment of law enforcement agencies in countries with a high prevalence of early marriage is important. Greater involvement of teachers and school administrators, health officials, and other authorities is critical in helping girls resist parental and social pressures to marry early.
In the wake of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, several international treaties and agreements have followed to eradicate early marriage to protect the human rights of children. The 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriages establishes minimum marital ages and requires the registration of marriages. Building on that treaty, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states that “the betrothal and the 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 and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.” CEDAW also states that the marriage of a girl is not an official marriage, because the girl is not an adult who can freely and fully consent to the union. This declaration was re-emphasized by the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989.