Photo credit: Graham Crouch | Girls Not Brides.
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
* 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)
With approximately 1 in 2 girls married off before the age of 18, South Asia has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world.
South Asia has witnessed the largest decline in child marriage in the last decade. A girl’s risk of marrying before 18 has dropped from nearly 50% to 30% in the last ten years.
Child marriage in South Asia is rooted in gender inequality. Girls are primarily expected to become wives and mothers and have limited educational or employment opportunities. Control of female sexuality and fear of sexual violence also underlie the practice.
Poverty is a factor too. Girls from poorer families are more likely to marry young than girls from wealthier backgrounds. Many families in South Asia do not see the value in sending girls to school, which can be of poor quality and offer few economic prospects.
Social norms that value boys more than girls mean that parents do not invest in their daughters’ health and education, with child marriage as the only alternative.
And dowry – where a girl’s family is expected to pay the groom in money, goods or property upon marriage – can drive child marriage too. The younger a girl is, the less dowry is demanded from parents, which gives parents an incentive to marry their daughters at a younger age.
Legal status of child marriage in South Asia
Most South Asian countries, with the exception of Afghanistan and Pakistan, have set the national legal minimum age of marriage to 18 years old or above, often penalising promotion and involvement in child marriage. Nepal has set the minimum age of marriage for both girls and boys at 20 years.
However, the lack of legal consistency and the existence of multiple legal systems (where civil law often contradicts religious or customary laws) undermine girls’ ability to seek legal protection and remedy where child marriage exists. For instance, in Bangladesh girls as young as 14 can be married off with parental consent. Religious and customary laws, which regulate most marriages in South Asia, often allow marriage at a younger age than what civil law permits.
In many South Asian countries, there are also a number of contradictions with age restrictions related to sex, age of consent and the criminalisation of marital rape.
There is also a lack of effective implementation of laws prohibiting child marriage.
For an overview of laws relating to child marriage in South Asia, refer to “Child marriage in South Asia: International and constitutional legal standards and jurisprudence for promoting accountability and change” (Centre for Reproductive Rights, 2013, pp 12-16).
Regional initiatives addressing child marriage
In August 2014, governments in the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) adopted a Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage to “delay the age of marriage for girls in at least four countries in South Asia by 2018”. The creation of the regional action plan was spearheaded by the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC).
In November 2014, SAARC member states representatives joined civil society organisations and SAIEVAC in issuing the Kathmandu Call for Action to End Child Marriage in Asia, which calls on governments in the region to ensure the effective implementation of the regional action plan. It also supports a specific target to end child marriage in the post-2015 development framework.
- UNICEF, Q&A: Child marriage global data, 6 March 2018.
- UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2016: a fair chance for every child. Table 9: child protection, 2016.
- UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2015: reimagine the future. Table 9: Child protection, 2015.
- Plan Asia, International Center for Research on Women, Asia Child Marriage Initiative: summary of research in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, 2013.