Child Marriage – a practice driven by poverty

December 2016

A practice driven by poverty?

Every year 15 millions girls get married before the age of 18. In 2016, child marriage still remains a global issue. Primarily driven by poverty and economic status, the practice also relies on cultural, traditional and religious motives. Recognized internationally as a violation of human rights and of children’s human rights, it still occurs in most of the regions and most of the continents in the world in the global South and in the ‘developed’ North. According to UNICEF, if the trend continues, the number of girls given in marriage as children will reach approximately one billion in 2030, especially considering the ongoing severe refugee and migrant crises which represent new forms of threats for women and girls.

How to define child marriage?

The first article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child[1] states that a “child” means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. Thus it defines child marriage as ‘the practice of marriage of children under 18’.

According to various international and regional conventions and agreements, child marriage is a violation of human rights. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] states thatmen and women have equal rights to marriage, during marriage and after its dissolution’ and that ‘marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. This has been re-affirmed in 1954 in the article 21 of the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages[3].

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 and came into force in 1981. It is considered a real “bill of rights” for women. It defines the discrimination of women made on the basis of sex and gender. The Convention states that men and women have equal rights to enter into marriage and that child marriage should have no legal effect. States should record all marriages in its vital statistics registry and consider marriage under the age of 18 as being non-binding.

In 1995 the Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing with the aim ‘to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity’. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted by 189 countries and is still considered visionary for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

For decades, UN has adopted resolutions concerning early and forced marriage for children. In 2013, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) adopted a resolution which calls on States ‘to end the practice of child, early and forced marriage’ challenging the cultural, religious and traditional motives that justify it by specifying a legal age for marriage.

The last resolution adopted by the CSW on this issue dates from 17th of November 2014. It reaffirms the necessity to abolish child marriage, with an emphasis on education as a way to improve women’s economic power and their general empowerment.

 ‘Recognizing that child, early and forced marriage is a harmful practice that violates, abuses and impairs human rights and is linked to and perpetuates other harmful practices and human rights violations and that such violations have a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls, and underscoring the human rights obligations and commitments of States to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls and to prevent and eliminate the practice of child, early and forced marriage.[4]

The African Union adopted the African Charter for the rights and the well being of children and especially girls in 1999, in which article 21 states that early marriage is prohibited and that State Members should adopt laws to ban the practice.

More recently, the Council of Europe recognized in the Istanbul Convention that forced marriage is a form of violence against women. In 2011, it re-affirmed its will to put an end to violence and discrimination against women especially through penalization of forced marriage without consent of all parties concerned. The Istanbul Convention also asks for its prohibition by member States as forced marriage is considered a form of domestic violence.

Where does child marriage still persist?

Child marriage is a global problem that occurs in at least 117 countries. Higher rates of child marriage exist in countries of South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and Latin America. While the practice tends to slowly diminish in percentage, the decrease is not equally shared by all the countries where it generally occurs.

In Latin America and the Caribbean region, 18 % of young women between the age of 15 and 29 are under informal unions. Africa is the continent that gathers the higher number of countries without minimum age for girls to get married. According to a report on child marriage published by UNICEF for the period 2008-2014, in Africa higher rates of marriage for those under 15 years old can be found in the Central African Republic and Chad (29%) but also Niger (28%) and Guinea (21%). Concerning Asia, the two countries with higher rates of marriage for those under 15 years old are India and Bangladesh with a rate of 18 % for each in this period.

In 2016 the American PEW Research Centre published a report showing that the legislations of at least 117 countries still allow marriage under the age of 18. In addition, 6 countries in the world have not yet implemented any law concerning the legal marriageable age (Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Gambia, Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan). Other countries practice exemptions to the rule which is a way to make child marriage legal under specific conditions. Those exemptions can be either parental permission or judicial approval, for example, in Australia. Data show that girls are disproportionately affected by forced marriage, especially in countries where marriageable ages are different for boys and girls, as it is the case in 38 countries nowadays. Sometimes, and in addition to this gender based inequality, marriageable age is different depending on the communities, ethnic groups or religion spouses belong to. For instance, in the Philippines the legal age to get married is 21. But authorities make exceptions for the Muslim community. Thus the Muslim girls can be married at the age of puberty and Muslim boys at the age of 15. That measure shows how unequally the public policies treat women and men.

The age of marriage in the United States is 18, with two exceptions—Nebraska (19) and Mississippi (21). Most states allow minors who are 16 or 17 to marry with parental and/or judicial consent and in a few states, the marriageable age for minors with parental consent is as low as 13. Some states allow minors below 18 who are pregnant to marry without parental or judicial consent.  The federal government of the United States cannot constitutionally legislate a standard for the whole country. This presents special challenges for national NGOs trying to combat child marriage there. That measures shows how unequally the public policies treat women and men.

Why does child marriage continue?

On the one hand, the persistence of child marriage rests on poverty. The unequal development of countries due to globalisation and the unequal sharing of wealth between and within countries result in the incapacity for millions of people to live in decent conditions. Families in the poorest areas of the world are larger than in rich ones because of lack of knowledge of and access to medical care and to contraceptive methods for women. For poor households, child marriage still appears a way to reduce the daily cost of living and as a way for girls to escape poverty. Indeed, there is a prevalence of child marriage in the lower social classes as well as in rural areas compared to urban ones. Such a social approach of child marriage is particularly relevant in India where the society is ruled and organized according to the caste system. Statistics show that lower classes median age for marriage is 15,4 years while it reaches 19,7 for the upper ones.

On the other hand, it should be underlined that the practice of child marriage is linked to a social norm which means that it is accepted and carried on by a social group or a community. Thus, those who do not adopt this norm are considered as outsiders and marginalized in their own community or group. This social pressure often makes this kind of norms carry on for decades and decades. The norms, rules, and codes followed by groups and communities which allow and practice child marriage, deal with a traditional conception of the status of women. In lots of communities, boys are valued more than girls from the moment of their birth. Due to deeply rooted patriarchal principles, men are associated with values such as power, physical condition, intellectual skills, ability to govern and to take decisions for all. To the contrary, such attributes are denied to women who are mainly considered as mothers and as wives. This cultural pattern has enabled men for ages to play a greater decision-making role and favoured the persistence of patriarchal societies built by and for men.

This pattern also influences the institution of marriage, directly linked with women’s sexual life. Very often, the head of the family—who is quite often the father—has the final word because of the persistence of patriarchal values. Under these rules, girls have to honour their family by accepting the decision of the head of the family. Child marriage reinforces the stereotypes based on gender in particular affecting the girl child. Some marriages occur after the rape of a child in order to restore the honour of the girl who has been raped and in order to avoid prosecution and criminal charge for the rapist. Such a practice is still deeply rooted in countries of South Asia like Malaysia, where rape is exonerated by marriage, but also in India. In those cases, cultural and religious codes bring impunity to rapists who can also make arrangements with families, exchanging money for silence.

What risks are the girls exposed to with early marriage?

Child marriage is responsible for risks that threaten girls in different areas of their lives, such as educational, economic, social, and health. Girls who are forced to get married early usually have to stop going to school and therefore give up education despite the fact that it has been proven that education is the most effective means of empowerment. Education, indeed, enables people to find a job more easily, to earn money, to make the family’s daily life better by improving the living conditions (access to health, to medicines, to food and clean water, etc.).

On a social basis, another risk concerns the isolation girls face. Girls who get married early often have to break off their prior social contacts after marriage and cannot maintain connections with persons outside their families. Isolation and a negative environment can result in severe psychological consequences for both mothers and their babies.

Young brides also face serious health problems due to their young age, immature bodies, and their inappropriate life of a wife. There is indeed an almost systematic link between child marriage and early child-bearing. Those risky pregnancies are the consequences of the poor access to medical care for the young brides, but also of the husband’s desire to have a child as soon as possible. Due to unsafe sex conditions girl brides are seriously exposed to sexual infections. Their parents usually think that marriage protects girls from sexually transmitted infections, but research has proven that early brides are more exposed to sexual infections than others. According to the American Center NCBI[5], “In Kenya, married girls are 50% more likely than unmarried girls to become infected with HIV. In Zambia, the risk is even higher (59%).”

With child marriage, girls are not only exposed to sexual infections, but also to cervical cancer, to malaria and maternal mortality. Indeed, early pregnancy brings with it a high rate of child and maternal mortality and morbidity, such as fistula. According to the World Health 0rganization (WHO[6]), the most frequent cause of death in young women aged 15 to 18 is complications during pregnancy and birth. The lives of the babies are also at risk. According to the international NGO, Girls Not Brides: “when a mother is under 20, her child is 50 % more likely to be stillborn or die within its first weeks of life than a baby born to an older mother”.

The impact on women’s bodies is another major problem. Child marriage often occurs at an age where girls are not yet physically ready to have sexual relations or to be pregnant (sometimes girls are not even pubescent).

Child marriage and migration

According to the 2015 report on migrations of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the UN, any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country[7] can be called a migrant. The migrant crisis is the result of political, social, cultural, religious and economic struggles in the world. In reaction thousands of men, women and children flee their countries and travel along unsafe roads to supposedly safer destinations, such as Europe.

“Migrants” and “migrations” are inclusive categories which mask complex and various realities. Migrations involves deep inequalities, many of them being gender-based. According to the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), women nowadays might represent more than 48 % of all international migrants[8] but, depending on regions, considerable differences appear. For UNFPA we are currently facing a phenomenon of feminization of migration, thus the number of females is increasing faster that the number of male migrants. It becomes ever more common to find pregnant women on the route alone taking care of their children. On their way, as well as in the hot spots if they eventually succeed in reaching a safe haven such as Europe, women and girls are particularly exposed to harassment and sexual abuse. Because of their situation of extreme poverty, to survive they sometimes have to engage in survival prostitution or choose to force their girls to get married.

According to the 2015 United Nations International Migrations Report[9], 15% of migrants and refugees are under 20. “Globally, the proportion of women among all migrants fell from 49 per cent in 2000 to 48 per cent in 2015. Much of this decline is due to the growing share of male migrants in high-income non-OECD countries. Between 2000 and 2015, the proportion of female migrants in such countries fell from 45 to 40 per cent (figure 4). The share of female migrants also declined in middle-income countries. In the high-income OECD countries, however, the share of female migrants increased slightly during the same period: from 51 to 52 per cent.” That is why the migrant crisis is a real feminist issue as it also turns out to be a women’s crisis.

In a report called “Too Young To Wed”, the NGO Save the Children focuses on the child marriage issue in Jordanian refugee camps where child marriage appears as a drastic consequence of the crisis. Since the political crisis began in Syria, the number of girls who have been forced to marry has dramatically increased. Motives are economical, but also come from the certainty that there is no hope for a better future in those camps. That is why parents often decide to marry their girls with outsiders in order to give the girls a “chance” to escape. Marriage of children can appear as a way to protect girls who are particularly exposed to violence and sexual abuse based on gender inequality in refugee camps.

Child marriage and terrorism

The current growth of terrorist organizations such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in Middle East or Boko Haram in North Africa has resulted in a dramatic rise of the rate of forced child marriages in these regions.

Around the world, marriage remains framed and led by religion and tradition. Muslim countries are currently facing a marriage crisis. Most men do not have access to marriage before 30-35 years old. One reason is demographic, but this can also be explained by financial motives, as marriage is still an expensive undertaking for both bride and bridegroom. Because of poverty, part of the male population cannot have access to it. ISIS is currently trying to take advantage of this “marriage crisis” by making propaganda in order to attract new soldiers. They promise to offer a wife, or even several, who will take care of them and bear them children who will eventually be the next ISIS soldiers.

ISIS has been capturing thousands of girls, especially from Yazedi communities and other Shia groups.  Moreover in ISIS or Boko Haram territories, massive kidnappings have occurred in order to convert young girls into sex slaves and wives for the soldiers. This has been the reason of the operation of Boko Haram that took place in Nigeria and that resulted in the capture of thousands of young girls and children. This has induced more and more families to practice early marriage for their girls in order to prevent Boko Haram or ISIS from kidnapping them.

What tools to fight against child marriage ?

Child marriage is a deeply rooted practice. To fight against it, professionals, experts and volunteers have to work both at global and local levels. There exist different tools to put an end to the persistence of child marriage, by acting at the judicial, political, and cultural levels. Such action has to pay attention to cultural and religious factors in different communities. It should show them that ending child marriage will immediately reduce the health and social risks for their families.

Concerning judicial tools, NGOs together with governments and civil society more generally should work for an increase of the marriageable age to 18. They should also work for the equal treatment of men and women facing forced marriage concerning the legal marriageable age which is often lower for girls than for boys. This discriminatory measure based on gender inequality increases the risks for girls to be exposed to gender based violence, sexual violence and domestic violence.

In order to fight against the cultural and traditional roots of child marriage, there is a need to intensify campaigns against this practice based on the cooperation among local government, local media and local NGOs working directly with the communities.

NGOs and governments should set up adapted tools to help the most vulnerable communities to restrain child marriage in refugee settlements, offering specific protection and help. The help offered to refugees and migrants has to take into consideration specific aspects of child marriage in communities where such a decision is often driven by poverty, by the desire to escape from the camps, of crossing the borders etc.

Such a tool is directly linked with educational goals because fighting against child marriage means fighting against its cultural and religious roots. Work has to be done to convince families that they are exposing their girls to major risks by marrying off their daughters while they are still children. NGOs have to furnish psychological help, listen to victims—boys and girls—and offer them medical assistance. They also need to create suitable conditions for discussion and exchange with parents and particularly with fathers who, as a rule, are the head of the family.

Action trends in European countries

A member of the Legal Committee of IAW member of Deutscher Frauenring informed us that the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in December 2015 that Switzerland is not obliged to recognize marriage with a child. The Right to Family Life as set down in the European Convention on Human Rights does not require such a recognition. This decision has consequences. It can guide a country’s policies regarding the recognition of child marriage and claims to join one’s family in its country of immigration.

In December 2015 the Netherlands passed an express law fixing 18 years as legal age of marriage. This law was based on a political decision of general principle to protect potential victims of child marriages. Marriages below that age, even if they took place abroad, are not recognized any more.

In Germany changes are under discussion concerning the legal age of marriage, but also with a view to the above-mentioned recent rulings. A Government working group has been set up to draft changes. Deutscher Frauenring is poised to go public with a number of requests as soon as the government presents the motion. Its requests concern the exact conditions for the recognition of a marriage, in our country or abroad. They are in the best interest of thousands of girls married away early who need to be protected from spousal and family violence. According to official sources the number of child marriages in Germany is at present about 1500 with many cases remaining unreported. 361 girls were less than 14 years old.

Child marriage is a political issue in the sense that political parties, pressure groups or even individuals try to make their interests prevail.  A case may highlight the dimension of the problem and demonstrate the possible conflict of interests in the absence of a clear ruling. A 21-year old Syrian had married his cousin, aged 15, in an Imam ceremony, and later fled with her to Germany.  A State court ruled the marriage was legal because in Syria Islamic law allows child marriage. Local German authorities did not deem the marriage to be valid and gave the minor wife into custody to safeguard her interests according to CRC requirements. The Syrian husband went to court to claim his marital rights. The Federal court has yet to rule on the case. In our view any legal or administrative recognition of child marriage reinforces the lack of rights of minors as well as their discrimination.

Summing up

As required by CEDAW, primacy of civil registration over traditional ceremonies should guide governments. To make this requirement a meaningful tool in the fight against child marriage, a functioning vital statistics registration system is needed. Otherwise, a large proportion of girls and boys, particularly those living in rural areas, will be no better off. Countries with unreliable registration of births, deaths and marriages, or their dissolution, need international help and/or aid based on bilateral development cooperation. War or conflict situations are a challenge to the functioning of the systems.  IAW has agreed positions on both the harmfulness of Child Marriage and the importance of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems

In many countries with a high rate of child marriage, women are defined by their role of bearing children to their husbands and caring for large families. A proven way to empower women and help them stay healthy is avoidance of too early, too frequent and too late pregnancies. To that effect, counselling and access to contraception are a must. Services should be free, discrete and not require the husband’s or the family’s consent. A decades-old wisdom states that “family planning is the bottom line” to free women from traditional restrictions and allow them to become agents of change, in their communities and beyond.


This paper has been researched and drafted by Mariam Pellicer, my intern from France, Institute of Political Sciences of Toulouse, under my supervision. Gudrun Haupter has contributed corrections and the last part on action trends in European countries. Alison Brown has contributed a paragraph on the situation in the US.

[1] United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

[3] UN Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, 1954

[4] UN Resolution on Child, Early and Forced Marriage, 17 November 2014

[5]    National Center for Biotechnology Information that have produced a report on child marriage