Panel Paper: Child Marriage Laws Around the World: Implications for Gender Equality

Monday, June 13, 2016 : 2:55 PM
Clement House, 3rd Floor, Room 07 (London School of Economics)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Alison Earle, Brandeis University, Megan A.M. Arthur, University of Edinburgh, Amy Raub, University of California, Los Angeles and Jody Heymann, McGill University
The marriage of children below age 18 is widely recognized as a discriminatory global practice that hinders the development and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of girls and women, reinforcing gender inequalities.  Nearly all national governments have signed international conventions committing to combat this practice yet there has been little comparative analysis of national legislation on child marriage. 

To fill this gap we built a database capturing legal provisions shaping child marriage in 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. We conducted  a systematic review of legislation using a double coding process to translate minimum age provisions into a set of consistent, quantitatively analyzable categories based on coding conventions. We analyzed data for two samples: a 2013 cross-sectional sample including data on 191 countries, and a longitudinal sample from 1995 to 2013 including 106 low- and middle-income countries for which information was available. Variables in the database capture the general minimum age of marriage, the minimum age of marriage with parental consent, the minimum age of marriage under customary and/or religious law, the minimum age under other exceptions (including with court approval or in case of pregnancy or birth of a child), as well as gender differences in these categories. These findings are disaggregated by geographic region in order to provide a comparison of the variation in minimum marriage age laws globally.

Analyses reveal widespread gender discriminatory provisions in legislation regulating the minimum age of marriage. Fifty-nine countries around the world currently permit girls to be married at younger ages than boys with parental consent. These legal frameworks compound, rather than combat, gender inequalities in child marriage and the detrimental impacts of this practice on girls.

Before considering exceptions, 23 countries around the world already girls to be legally married below age 18 without requiring any special permissions or concessions. In those countries, there are effectively no national institutional protections that comply with the standards set by international human rights institutions and agreed to by the vast majority of nations. When parental permission is provided, 99 countries allow a girl to be married before age 18. Since child marriages often occur with parental permission and involvement, and are in fact often arranged by the parents themselves, these exceptions may be considered to be a better reflection of the actual minimum age in practice.

In many countries, legal provisions for the minimum age of marriage set at the national level can be superseded by customary and religious law. These laws, which exist in parallel to civil law, often do not set a minimum age of marriage that complies with global agreements, or any minimum at all. Our findings show that girls in 30 countries around the world may not be protected from marriage before the age of 18 when exceptions under customary and religious law are considered. While progress has been achieved in setting a legislative floor protecting girls under 18 from marriage, considerable gaps remain in establishing laws that achieve gender parity and effectively make marriage below 18 illegal.