Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18, disproportionately affects girls around the world. It is a human rights violation that legitimizes abuse and denies girls’ autonomy under the guise of culture, honor, tradition, and religion.
Child marriage is a global problem
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. that is 23 girls every minute, nearly 1 every 2 seconds. More than 650 million women, and over 150 million men, already suffer the consequences of child marriage.
Child marriage happens across religious, ethnic and cultural groups. In the United States alone, approximately 248,000 children were married between 2000 and 2010. The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, many much older. There is even a federal exception to statutory rape when the perpetrator is married to the 12 – 15-year-old child.
Across all regions, children living in poverty or whose rape has resulted in pregnancy are most vulnerable to child marriage.
Why is child marriage a feminist issue?
Child marriage affects girls at far greater rates than boys; 720 million women and girls alive today were married before age 18, compared to 156 million men and boys.
Because the vast majority of child marriages are younger girls to older men, there is an inherent imbalance of power in these relationships, which is often linked to domestic violence. In addition to the physical danger this presents to women and girls, violence can also have lasting psychological implications on girls’ and women’s mental health.
According to the International Council of Research On Women (ICRW), women with low levels of education and married adolescents between the ages of 15-19 years old are at a higher risk of domestic violence than older and more educated women. Globally, girls who marry before age 18 are 50 percent more likely to face physical or sexual violence from a partner throughout the course of their life.
How does child marriage impact the life of a girl?
Regardless of where in the world she lives, child marriage deprives a girl of a future in which she can reach her full potential and furthers a dangerous cycle of oppression and harm.
When young girls are forced to marry, they are essentially subject to state-sanctioned rape and are at risk of increased domestic violence, forced pregnancy, and negative health consequences, while being denied education and economic opportunity.
Women married as children have, on average, lower levels of education than those who marry after the age of eighteen, trapping them in a cycle of poverty, vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence, and poor health outcomes.
Child marriage and the law: national and international
Child marriage violates international human rights law, including:
- the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
It also legitimizes further abuses, leaving girls and women vulnerable.
All 193 countries of the United Nations committed to eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation by 2030 within Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Globally, our legal advocacy approach to ending child marriage advocates for a minimum age of marriage to be 18, with no exceptions as a legal standard that States should apply at the national level through legislation. However, the work does not stop there; a law on the minimum age of marriage only sets the foundation for further interventions that will seek to prevent child marriage and ensure girls and young women’s agency is protected and nurtured.
Therefore, for a minimum age of marriage law to be effective, it needs to be accompanied by various relevant and appropriate laws and policies that address the multi-faceted and multi-sectoral nature of child marriage both in terms of drivers and consequences in full recognition of the complexity of patriarchy and gender inequality for girls and young women.