Child Marriage Policies in the Developing World


Today, more than half of the world’s low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) allow girls to be married before the age of 18, and nearly a quarter allow marriage for girls younger than 16. While significant progress has been made in strengthening protections over the last two decades, child marriage remains legal, and prevalent, in many countries throughout the world. Using longitudinal data on child marriage laws drawn from MACHEquity’s policy databases, we’ve examined the current state of child marriage policies around the world and policy changes since 1995 in 121 LMICs.

Child Marriage
No Minimum Age for Marriage
Country19952012
Djibouti--None
The GambiaNone18
MaldivesNone18
MauritaniaNone18
NigeriaNone18
OmanNone18
QatarNone16
Sierra LeoneNone18
Sri Lanka12None
SudanNoneNone
Trinidad & TobagoNoneNone
Yemen15None

Protections are Becoming Stronger - with Some Exceptions


In 1995, there were nine LMICs that had not established a minimum age of marriage for girls1, and a total of 85 countries that allowed girls to be married before the age of 18.


By 2012, significant improvement had been made, as the number of countries allowing girls to be married before the age of 18 had dropped by nearly one-quarter to 65. Among the countries that had not previously established a minimum age for marriage, all but two (Sudan and Trinidad and Tobago) introduced legal protections against child marriage during this period.


At the same time, however, a few countries weakened or altogether removed existing protections. Between 1995 and 2012, Cambodia and Azerbaijan lowered the age at which girls could be legally married, and Sri Lanka and Yemen eliminated previously established minimum ages.

Gender Bias is Common in Marriage Laws


In many countries, boys are afforded greater protection against child marriage than girls, for whom the minimum age of marriage is often lower. In 1995, such gender bias was apparent in the marriage laws of the majority of the countries in our sample. Seventy countries (58.3%) allowed for girls to be married at a younger age than boys in 1995. And, in 61 of these countries (50.8%), the minimum legal age of marriage was at least two years lower for girls than it was for boys. Across all countries the average minimum age of marriage for girls was more than one and a half years lower than for boys (14.5 compared to 16.1).


By 2012, gender discrimination in the minimum age of marriage had lessened – the gender gap in the average legal age of marriage decreased to less than a year. However, 48 countries (40%) still permitted girls to be married at a younger age than boys, while exactly zero countries allowed boys to be married at a younger age than girls.

Average - 1995 Average - 2012
Min. Age, Regional Averages

Progress Across Nearly All Regions


On average, the minimum age at which girls could be married in 2012 was lowest among countries in the Middle East and North Africa (14.4 years) and the Americas (14.6 years) and highest in Europe and Central Asia (17.6 years) and East Asia (16.9 years). In every region apart from East Asia, the average minimum legal age of marriage for girls increased between 1995 and 2012. The largest increases occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, where minimum age of marriage rose by 2.5 years and 1.7 years, respectively.

Outcomes Reinforce Gender Inequalities


Early marriage commonly reinforces gender inequalities. In countries where the minimum age of marriage is lower, girls are more likely to become mothers while still teenagers, less likely to be enrolled in primary and secondary education, and are less active in the labour force in later youth.


These trends are particularly pronounced in low-income countries, where child marriage most commonly occurs:2 Compared to other low income countries where the minimum age of marriage is 18 years or older, in countries where of the minimum age of marriage is under 18the adolescent fertility rate is 23% higher and the ratio of young women aged 15 to 24 participating in the labour force is 30% lower.


Outcomes

About the Data


In order to better understand the current state of child marriage policies around the world, how these policies have changed over time, and the effects of these changes, the MACHEquity team at McGill University has collected longitudinal data on child marriage laws, and several other policy areas, dating back to 1995 in most low and middle-income countries in the world. These data have now been made available for public use through the recently launched MACHEquity Data Dashboards, an interactive data visualization tool which enables users to explore, analyze, and download the data contained within MACHEquity’s longitudinal policy databases, alongside supplementary data drawn from the World Bank's World Development Indicators (WDI) database.


All of the policy data described in this post, and more, are included in the MACHEquity Child Marriage Data Dashboards. To begin exploring the Data Dashboards for yourself, please click here, or select from the options in the menu below.

1 In the analyses presented here, “minimum age of marriage” refers to the youngest age at which marriage is permitted, and includes such instances in which the legal minimum age for marriage is lowered if parental consent is provided. For example, the general minimum age of marriage for girls in Afghanistan is sixteen. However, with parental consent, girls in Afghanistan can marry at the age of fifteen. Thus, we consider fifteen to be the minimum age of marriage in Afghanistan.

2 Child Marriage, UNICEF global databases, 2014. Based on DHS, MICS and other national household surveys.