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Setting the age of marriage at 18 can have a huge impact on child marriage

  • Countries where 18 is the legal minimum age of marriage and consent, without exception, are better at ending child marriage, says new research
  • Countries with consistent laws have child marriage rates 40% lower than countries with inconsistent laws
Credit: Ravi Juneja | Girls Not Brides

This blog is part of the #MyLifeAt15 campaign, which calls on governments to implement the Global Goals target to end child marriage by 2030.

Legally protecting the rights of girls is emerging as a critical factor in preventing child marriage, and one that is often overlooked.

At MACHEquity, a research program in Montreal’s McGill University, we have spent the last five years exploring the effects of national laws and policies on the health and wellbeing of individuals in low- and middle-income countries. As part of this effort, we have compiled comprehensive information on child marriage laws in 121 nations over the past 20 years.

For every one of these countries, we know at what age girls and boys can get married, and more importantly, at what age girls and boys can get married if parental consent overrides the “normal” minimum age of marriage.

Our researchers are very interested in the effects of child marriage laws – not only because they can prevent girls from getting married, but also because marrying young is linked to a raft of negative outcomes: less education, more poverty, and health problems that include domestic violence, risky adolescent pregnancies, and death of the mother during delivery. This research can help make a stronger case for robust legal and policy systems as a tool for ending child marriage.

Legal loopholes leave girls vulnerable to child marriage

A very large majority of low- and middle-income countries have in fact established minimum ages of marriage at 18, in line with international commitments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child – and also in line with the position of Girls Not Brides.

While this is good news in theory, there are often legal loopholes that allow girls to marry before that age. For example, in Morocco, where on paper the minimum age of marriage is 18, a report found that judges approved 90 per cent of the requests they received to let minors marry.

Countries frequently allow underage marriage if the girl’s parents consent to it, and in most of the world parents have strong motivations to give this consent. Religious laws, social expectations, cultural mores, and financial incentives such as dowries all play a role. Currently, 54 per cent of low- and middle-income countries allow girls to be married before the age of 18 if they receive consent from their parents.

Without consistent laws, countries are less able to end child marriage

Looking at the effects of child marriage laws in 12 sub-Saharan African countries, we found that countries that consistently protect the rights of girls by setting their legal minimum age of marriage, their legal minimum age of marriage with parental consent, and their legal minimum age of sexual consent at 18 or older had rates of child marriage and adolescent birth that were 40 per cent and 25 per cent lower than countries where these laws contradicted one another. These associations point to the crucial difference that legislation can make in the fight against child marriage.

Countries that set their legal minimum age of marriage, their legal minimum age of marriage with parental consent, and their legal minimum age of sexual consent at 18 or older have rates of child marriage 40% lower than countries that haven’t.

This suggests that countries that do not apply consistent laws – such as Tanzania, where a girl can only consent to sex at age 18, but can be married at 15 with the consent of her parents – are less successful at preventing child marriage.

Using research for policy change

MACHEquity’s minimum age of marriage data will become freely downloadable in the next month, which we hope will support global efforts to end child marriage and encourage other interested researchers and organizations to start their own research projects.

This type of research can help end child marriage in three separate ways.

  • It can used to examine how minimum age laws can be used to lower rates of child marriage;
  • It can strengthen the case against child marriage by highlighting how minimum age laws can lead to improved health and socio-economic outcomes;
  • And, if the law is there but the benefits are not, it can point to a failure of implementation of the law – in other words, the law exists but it is not being followed.

Laws only one piece of the puzzle

National laws are not the only tool in the toolbox. Improving educational opportunities for girls, strengthening labour markets for women, and supporting families and communities to choose alternatives other than marrying off their young daughters can all make a huge difference.

However, a consistent set of minimum age laws is the indispensable first step. It is possible to create a law that is not followed completely, but it is extremely unlikely that a strict standard – such as no marriages under 18 under any condition – can be met if it has not first been made into law at the national level.

Countries that establish consistent laws to protect the rights of girls under 18 have a better shot at curtailing child marriage and its harmful consequences. We hope that these findings can help ignite a deeper conversation about how policy change can help end child marriage.

To learn more

Belinda Maswikwa, Linda Richter, Jay Kaufman, and Arijit Nandi. Minimum marriage age laws, child marriage rates and adolescent birth: Evidence from Sub-Saharan AfricaInternational Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2015; 41(2). Our 1995-2015 database of child marriage laws, which includes minimum age of marriage and minimum age of marriage with parental consent for both boys and girls separately, will be downloadable soon so check back often! If you have any questions or comments for program staff, you can email Our partners at the World Policy Analysis Center can provide more detailed information on current child marriage policies worldwide. for more information on (among others) sexual consent laws.