Child marriage & the law

Laws that set a minimum age of marriage are an important way to safeguard boys and girls from being married before they are ready.

It is important that children are recognised in the law as being children and that they are accorded the full protection of the law.

Governments need to have clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage. Adequate safeguards must be in place to ensure that parental consent or other exceptions are not used to force girls into marriage.

The existence of laws that set a minimum age for marriage is an important tool that helps those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters as children.

Photo credit: Kanishka Afshari | FCO/DFID

Do all countries have a minimum age of marriage?

Most countries around the world have laws that set a minimum age of marriage, usually at age 18.

However, many countries provide exceptions to the minimum age of marriage, upon parental consent or authorisation of the court. Other exceptions allow customary or religious laws that set lower minimum ages of marriage to take precedence over national law. Such exceptions undermine the efficacy of legal protections against child marriage.

According to a recent mapping of minimum age of marriage laws by the World Policy Analysis Center, 93 countries legally allow girls to marry before the age of 18 with parental consent.

Legal frameworks can reinforce, rather than challenge, gender inequalities.[1] The World Policy Analysis Center found that 54 countries allow for girls to marry between one and three years younger than boys.

[1] World Policy Analysis Centre, Changing Children’s Chances: New Findings on Child Policy Worldwide, 2013

Why should 18 be the minimum age of marriage?

Girls Not Brides members believe that 18 should be the minimum age for marriage in line with international human rights standards.

Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective rather than subjective standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready. Why allow children to marry at an age when, for example, they do not have the right to vote or enter into other contracts recognised in law? The most widely accepted definition for a child is 18, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A minimum age of marriage of 18 will also help to ensure that children are able to give their free and full consent to marry and have the minimum level of maturity needed before marrying.

What does international law say about child marriage?

Child marriage or marriage without the free and full consent of both spouses is a human rights violation and is not in line with several international and regional agreements, including:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriage
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Also known as ‘The Maputo Protocol’)
  • African Charter on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child
  • Inter-American Convention on Human Rights

A full list of provisions from International and Regional Instruments relevant to protection from child marriage, prepared by the Africa Child Policy Forum can be found here.

How useful are international and regional standards on minimum age of marriage in protecting children from child marriage?

International and regional agreements prohibiting child marriage set standards that governments should adhere to in protecting children from being married before they are ready.  These standards also act as an accountability measure: governments have to report to the committees that oversee them about how they are implementing the standards standards.

They can be used to hold governments accountable for failure to implement and enforce their obligations related to child marriage under these conventions.

Photo credit: Dominic Chavez | World Bank

What are the challenges in enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage?

Even where strong legal frameworks exist, their enforcement is often weak. The reasons for non-implementation of the law can vary from one context to another, and may include:

  • Lack of awareness and training among law enforcement officials and other relevant professionals to ensure that laws are understood, implemented and enforced
  • Lack of birth and marriage registration
  • Discrepancies between formal and religious or customary law on the minimum age of marriage

Is minimum age of marriage legislation enough to end child marriage? What else is needed?

As well as having strong and enforceable minimum age of marriage legislation, it is imperative that to have strong supporting legislation which protects women and girls’ rights.

However, law reform is only one part of the solution. In order to prevent child marriage, a holistic and comprehensive approach must be adopted which addresses the root causes of child marriage. Visit our ‘Theory of Change’ for an overview of what an effective response to child marriage entails.