Child marriage - Frequently Asked Questions

February 2018

What is child marriage?
Why does child marriage happen?
How common is child marriage?
Where does child marriage happen?
How old are the children involved in child marriages?
What is the usual age difference between a child bride and her husband?
Are boys ever married off while still children?
What are the consequences of child marriage?
Is child marriage legal?
Is it insensitive to interfere with other countries’ religious or​ cultural traditions around child marriage?
How can the world end child marriage?
What is the difference between child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage?
What does teen pregnancy have to do with child marriage?

What is child marriage?

Child marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. Although this definition sounds straightforward, the realities of child marriage can be complicated. Both the words “child” and “marriage” are sometimes interpreted differently.

The internationally recognized definition of a child – established by the Convention of the Rights of the Child, one of the most universally endorsed and widely ratified treaties in history – is “every human being below the age of 18 years”. This is also the legal definition used in most parts of the world.

But in a small number of countries, adulthood, or the “age of majority” may be reached before age 18. (The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes an exception for national laws recognizing an earlier age of majority.) Some countries and cultures consider adulthood a state achieved upon marriage – for example, countries where full age means the age of 18 years and above, and any married woman is deemed to be of full age. And other countries have an older minimum age of marriage, such as Nepal, where the law requires people be at least 20 when they marry.

The concept of marriage also varies – it can be formal or informal, governed by civil law, common law or religious law, or simply be a customary practice. In many parts of the world, for example, marriages may be recognized by the community without legal registration. Marriages may be marked with a ceremony, or there may be no ceremony or legal action at all. In countries where polygamous marriage is not permitted by civil law, second and third marriages often take place without formal registration.

Major surveys try to account for this variation when measuring child marriage. Multiple Indicators Cluster Surveys and Demographic Health Surveys, for example, collect information on the date and age at which a woman and man first started living with their first spouses or partners.

In the end, these varying definitions make little difference for a child’s safety and health. Child marriage is a serious human rights violation that directly threatens lives, health, safety and education of girls and boys, limiting their future prospects.

Why does child marriage happen?

It can be hard to imagine why someone would choose to have their child married off. But for millions of people, child marriage can seem like the best – or only – option.

Daughters are frequently seen as burdens or commodities because of pervasive gender inequality. Impoverished parents often believe marriage will secure a daughter’s future by making a husband or his family responsible for her care. This may be the case when parents face economic hardships or when girls are forced by poverty or circumstance to drop out of school. In places where the bride’s family pays a dowry to the groom’s family, younger brides typically command smaller dowries, creating an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off early. In places where the groom’s family pays a bride price, parents in difficult circumstances may marry off their daughters as a source of income.

Parents – especially in humanitarian crises – often view marriage as a way to protect their daughters from sexual violence. Child marriage rates have been known to increase during the chaos of war, as families endure both economic instability and fear of violence. Yet child marriage itself leads to girls experiencing high levels of sexual, physical and emotional violence from their intimate partners.

Although most adolescent pregnancies in the developing world take place among girls who are already married, in some places, teenage pregnancy prompts parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in both wealthy and poor countries where communities consider pregnancy outside of marriage to be shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.

And not all child marriages are the result of parents’ or guardians’ decisions. Often, adolescents themselves decide to marry their partner. These marriages may be a way to exercise independence, leave home or escape difficult circumstances, including desperate poverty or family violence. Restrictions on adolescent sexuality outside of marriage also drive some adolescents to see marriage as the only way to be sexually active.

In most cases, child marriage is the result of girls and families having few choices. Overwhelmingly, when young people have a choice, they marry later.

“If I quit my studies, I will be married off immediately,” said Kabita, 16, in Nepal. © UNFPA Nepal/Dhana Bahadur Lamsal

How common is child marriage?

Child marriage is actually very common.

More than 700 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. In low- and middle-income countries, 26.7 per cent of young women were child brides. Child marriage also takes place in high-income countries.

Child marriage is most common in West and Central Africa, where over four in 10 girls were married before age 18 (an estimated one in seven were married before age 15). While sub-Saharan Africa still has some of the highest rates of child marriage, South Asia is home to the largest numbers of child brides.

There is good news: global child marriage rates are slowly falling. Around 2000, one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 reported they had been married as children. In 2015, this number was just over one in four. The fastest progress has been seen in delaying marriage among girls under age 15. Rates of child marriage before age 15 fell from 11 per cent in 2000 to 8 per cent in 2015. 

Still, progress has been uneven and child marriage is not declining fast enough. Because of population growth in regions where child marriage is more prevalent, such as West and Central Africa, the rate of decline is slow and the total number of child marriages is projected to increase by 2030. To change this, we must accelerate our actions to end child marriage. 

Where does child marriage happen?

Child marriage takes place all over the world.

It even happens in developed countries – including the United States and United Kingdom. Many people assume that when child marriage takes place in affluent countries, it only involves immigrant communities. This is not the case. Child marriage is known to take place across a wide range of communities, ethnicities and religions.

Still, child marriage is much more common in the developing world because one of the main driving factors is poverty.

The highest rates of child marriage are seen in West and Central Africa, where over four in ten girls were married before age 18. In terms of sheer numbers, South Asia is home to the largest numbers of child brides.

How old are the children involved in child marriages?

Children can be married off at any age. The most common ages at which children are married are 16 and 17.

Marriages that take place before age 15 are considered “very early marriages.” These marriages have a particularly negative impact on girls, interrupting their educations earlier and jeopardizing their health more acutely. The prevalence of these marriages vary by country. UNFPA has found that very early marriages constituted 30 per cent or more of child marriages in 14 out of 82 low- and middle-income countries for which data are available. 

In some cases, children are as young as five when they are married, although this is rare. Extremely young brides and grooms are sometimes married in ceremony only, but live with their own parents until they are adolescents.

It is much more common for children to be married around or after puberty.

In circumstances where parents are under enormous pressure to marry off their daughters – for those living in extreme poverty or in conflict settings, for instance – marriages have been reported among girls around 11 or 12 because girls are seen both as being ready for marriage and at risk of sexual violence.

What is the usual age difference between a child bride and her husband?

Children who are married – and they are overwhelmingly girls – tend to have spouses who are much older. When this is the case, the girls are generally more vulnerable and less able to advocate for their needs and desires.

Demographic and health surveys (tools for collecting key health and demographic information) even track age differences between girls and their spouses. This information is used as one of a variety of factors to evaluate the well-being of girls a community.

Still, child marriages are not always unions between girls and much-older men. In some communities, it is customary to wed girls and boys who are similar ages.

Are boys ever married off while still children?

While the vast majority of child marriages involve girls, boys can also be married off.

UNFPA has found that, in all 82 low- and middle-income countries for which there are data, the prevalence of child marriage is significantly lower for males than females. Only 1 in 25 boys (3.8 per cent) marry before they reach age 18, while marriage before age 15 is practically non-existent in boys (0.3 per cent). Only 10 countries have a child marriage prevalence for boys over 10 per cent – including 16 per cent in Madagascar; 14 per cent in Pakistan; 13 per cent in Central African Republic and the Lao People's Democratic Republic; 12 per cent in Comoros, Honduras, the Marshall Islands and Nauru; 11 per cent in Nepal; and 10 per cent in Guatemala.  

Child marriage rates for boys are very low even in countries where child marriage among girls is relatively high. 

What are the consequences of child marriage?

Child marriage undermines children’s human rights and derails their lives and future opportunities.

At the most basic level, it denies children the right to choose – with full and free consent and without coercion or fear – whom to marry, and when. This is one of life’s most important decisions.

And there are additional consequences. Child brides are more likely to become pregnant before their bodies are mature, increasing the risks of both maternal and newborn death and morbidity. In developing countries, nine out of 10 births to adolescent girls occur within a marriage or a union. In these countries, where access to sexual and reproductive health services is generally low, complications from pregnancy and childbirth can be deadly. In fact, globally, these complications are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.

Children who are married off are also vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Contributing to this problem is the fact that girls who have dropped out of school are more vulnerable to child marriage and less likely to be equipped with information about protecting themselves from STIs and unplanned pregnancy.

Child brides are particularly vulnerable to abuse. They are less able to advocate for themselves and less able to escape abusive relationships. Mental illness is common among child brides, for example, due to their experience of violence. Girls who marry young are also more likely to think that wife beating is justified than women who marry later in life. 

Married girls rarely enrol in school becauase they are expected to assume significant domestic responsibilities. This limits their future potential, and makes it harder for their families to escape poverty.

Lack of education and empowerment also mean girls are less able to advocate for the well-being of their own children. The children of child brides have higher mortality rates, worse nutritional outcomes, and tend to be less educated.

Cumulatively, child marriage takes an enormous toll on communities, workforces and economies, and the loss is carried over generations.

Is child marriage legal?

Child marriage is almost universally banned.

Two of the most broadly endorsed human rights agreements in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), address child marriage. The CRC establishes the internationally agreed definition of a child, and the right of children to health, education, protection from violence, and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, all of which are violated by child marriage. The CEDAW states unequivocally: “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.” Together, these treaties have been signed or ratified by every country except one.

Still, there are some national laws that enable different interpretations of this agreed principle. Many countries permit exceptions with parental consent or under religious or customary law.

Even in places where child marriage is clearly legally prohibited, enforcement can be complicated by the fact that many child marriages – and many marriages in general – are not legally registered.

UNFPA works with governments to advocate stronger laws, policies and enforcement mechanisms to end child marriage. UNFPA is also working with men, women and young people, including adolescent girls, to address the root causes of child marriage – continuing poverty and gender inequality, and support married girls.

Is it insensitive to interfere with other countries’ religious or cultural traditions around child marriage?

There are no major religious traditions that require child marriage. Yet child marriage persists, across many cultures and religions. But it would be wrong to say that child marriage warrants protection as a cultural or religious practice. Governments around the world have overwhelmingly, and independently, decided that child marriage is a grave violation of human rights.

In places where child marriage persists, evidence about its harms are usually convincing to policymakers, community leaders, religious leaders and parents. In fact, there are many examples of cultural and religious leaders taking a strong stance against child marriage. But prohibitions themselves are not always sufficient; because child marriage is typically the result of a lack of choices, and because it is viewed as the norm, families and communities also need alternatives.

How can the world end child marriage?

Laws prohibiting child marriage need to be enacted, strengthened and enforced. And more attention is needed to related laws such as on bride price and dowry, marital rape, birth and marriage registration, and mandatory schooling.

But laws alone will not end child marriage.

Fundamentally, gender equality must be advanced. When educating daughters is considered as worthwhile as educating sons, when communities – both men and women – give equal weight to the future potential of girls and boys, there is less motivation to engage in child marriage.

In addition, when adolescent girls and boys are empowered with information about their sexual and reproductive health, when they are able to decide freely and responsibly matters related to their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, they are less likely to want to marry before age 18.

Improved circumstances for families also eliminate the incentive to marry off children. For example, where parents fear for their daughters’ safety, better security is needed. And extreme poverty, which drives so many child marriages, must be eradicated. For this, many changes are needed, including social safety nets for girls and their families, as well as improved access to education, health services and economic opportunities.

Girls can play an important role in ending child marriage – when they know their rights and have access to the right information and opportunities. UNFPA has seen that when girls are empowered to stand up for themselves, they can persuade their families to delay or cancel engagements. Instead, they can stay in school, gain skills and support their families economically. Many have been inspired to become advocates and leaders in their communities.

UNFPA and its partners are now working to bring these changes to the most vulnerable girls. The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is reaching girls in 12 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and mobilizing a movement against child marriage globally. This programme is increasing girls’ access to education and health-care services, and it is educating parents and communities on the consequences of child marriage. It is also contributing to a more girl-friendly legal and policy environment, and generating data on what works to address child marriage and related issues such as adolescent pregnancy, gender-based violence and HIV.

What is the difference between child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage?

People occasionally refer to the term “child, early and forced marriage.” This creates the impression that these terms are distinct. In fact, they are overlapping.
Child marriage and early marriage largely refer to the same thing: marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. However, early marriage is also sometimes used to describe marriages in which one or both spouses are 18 or older, but with a compromised ability to grant consent. For example, the marriage of a 19-year-old who is not physically or emotionally mature, or who does not have sufficient information about her choices, would be considered an early marriage.

Forced marriage is a marriage in which one or both spouses do not give full and free consent, regardless of age. Forced marriage can also refer to a union in which one or both spouses are unable to end or leave the marriage.

Because in most countries children are not considered able to give legal consent, all child marriages are sometimes considered forced marriages. However, there are many instances of two adolescents under the age of 18 marrying each other voluntarily.

What does teen pregnancy have to do with child marriage?

In the developing world, around 90 per cent of adolescent births (those among girls 15-19 years old) take place among girls who are already married. This means that child marriage is often a precursor to early pregnancy, which poses a host of health risks to girls whose bodies may not yet be mature enough for motherhood. Globally, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls.

In some places, the causality is reversed. While most adolescent childbearing occurs within marriage, it is not uncommon for first births that occur within marriage to be the result of premarital conceptions. Teenage pregnancy is often an incentive for parents to marry their daughters off. This is seen in countries all over the world where communities see pregnancy outside marriage as shameful. Girls may even be forced to marry rapists to spare their families the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy.

Updated 1 February 2018