What's the child marriage rate? How big of an issue is child marriage?
Are there country-specific drivers of child marriage in this country?
Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that women and girls are somehow inferior to men and boys. In Timor-Leste, child marriage is also driven by:
- Traditional customs: The concept of marriage in Timor-Leste is more fluid than in other contexts. Child marriages take the form of traditional marriages (kaben adat) and church marriages (kaben igreja), and the practice of barlake has played a substantial role in the arranged marriages of girls in exchange for payment.
- Poverty: Some families reportedly force their daughters to marry boys chosen by them or marry them off because dowry has already been paid. Sometimes this is to meet financial obligations and girls are treated as commodities in a transaction.
- Level of education: Girls who leave school early are generally considered “eligible” to marry, regardless of their age.
- Adolescent pregnancy: A 2017 Plan report shows that when some young girls become pregnant, they marry soon after. Given conservative attitudes towards teenage sex in Timorese communities, many girls are quietly encouraged to “fix” pregnancy through marriage before neighbours find out. Strategies to prevent teenage pregnancy have focused on controlling girls’ movements and attempting to preserve their innocence. UNFPA argues that Timorese communities do not need to be convinced of the negative consequences of child marriage, but instead require assistance in developing effective strategies to respond to teenage sex.
- Family honour: Some girls are reportedly forced into marriages by their mothers when it becomes time to “formalise” their relationships with boyfriends. In a 2017 study, one girl reported that this involved being locked in a room and being forced into sex in order to prove the strength of the relationship.
- Escape: In a 2017 study, girls reported choosing to get married in order to escape abusive and high pressured situations at home or to improve their quality of life.
What has this country committed to?
Timor-Leste has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Timor-Leste co-sponsored the 2013 Human Rights Council resolution on child, early and forced marriage.
Timor-Leste acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2003, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2003, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
During its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Timor-Leste agreed to examine recommendations to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 with no exceptions, traditional or otherwise, and to raise awareness of this law.
What is the government doing to address this at the national level?
A 2017 report from Plan International, UNFPA and the Timorese government presents the social determinants of child marriage. It argues that teenage pregnancy is not a phenomenon acting in isolation, but is also the principal cause of early marriage in Timor-Leste.
The Timorese government’s proposed family planning policy, largely inspired by religious beliefs, would promote the Billings Method as the leading form of contraception, only granted to those already married. This would exclude young, unmarried girls and risks perpetuating the practice of child marriage as a result of pregnancy.
Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 aims to provide information about the negative impact of child marriage on local communities.
What is the minimum legal framework around marriage?
Under the Civil Code 2011 the minimum legal age of marriage is 17 years. However it is possible to marry at 16 years with parental consent. This rule applies to civil, Catholic and traditional bride-price (kaben adat) marriages.
Government of Timor-Leste, Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030, 2011, (accessed June 2018)
National Statistics Directorate, Ministry of Finance and ICF, Timor-Leste Demographic and Health Survey 2009-10, 2010, (accessed June 2018)
NGOs Working Group on CEDAW Alternative Report, Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Timor-Leste, 2009, (accessed June 2018)
Plan International, Teenage pregnancy and early marriage in Timor-Leste, 2017, (accessed June 2018)
Plan International, Timor-Leste’s proposed family planning policy will deny girls their rights, [website], 2017, (accessed June 2018)
UNFPA, BRIDE-PRICE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN TIMOR-LESTE, A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF MARRIED-IN AND MARRIED-OUT CULTURES IN FOUR DISTRICTS, 2012, (accessed June 2018)
UNFPA Timor-Leste, Putting an end to teenage pregnancy and early marriage, [website], 2017, (accessed June 2018)
UN General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Timor-Leste, 2016, p.20, (accessed June 2018)
UN General Assembly, Summary prepared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in accordance with paragraph 15 (c) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 and paragraph 5 of the annex to Council resolution 16/21 Timor-Leste, 2016, (accessed June 2018)
* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)