Child marriage is a marriage or similar union, formal or informal, between a child under a certain age – typically 18 years – and an adult or another child. The vast majority of child marriages are between a female child and a male adult, and are rooted in gender inequality.
Although the age of majority (legal adulthood) and marriageable age are usually designated at age 18, both vary across countries, and therefore the marriageable age may be older or younger in a given country. Even where the age is set at 18 years, cultural traditions may override legislation and many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy.
Child marriage violates the rights of children and has long-term consequences for both child brides and child grooms. For child brides, in addition to mental health issues and lack of access to education and career opportunities, these include adverse health effects as a result of early pregnancy and childbirth. Effects on child grooms include being ill-prepared for certain responsibilities such as providing for the family, early fatherhood, and a lack of access to education and career opportunities. Child marriage is part of the practice of child betrothal, which often includes civil cohabitation and a court-approval of the engagement Causes of child marriages include poverty, bride price, dowries, cultural traditions, religious and social pressures, regional customs, fear of the child remaining unmarried into adulthood, illiteracy, and perceived inability of women to work for money. Research indicates that comprehensive sex education can help to prevent child marriage. Reducing child marriage in developing countries requires educating and strengthening the rural community. Girls may make better life and marriage decisions with education. Rural development programs like healthcare, water, and sanitation may aid families financially and minimize child marriage. Education and rural development may break the cycle of poverty and child marriage.
Child marriages have been common throughout history and continue to be widespread, particularly in developing countries such as parts of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. However, even in developed countries, legal exceptions still allow child marriage including exceptions in 44 US states.
The incidence of child marriage has been falling in most parts of the world. 2018 data from UNICEF showed that about 21 percent of young women worldwide (aged from 20 to 24) were married as children, a 25 percent decrease from 10 years ago. The countries with the highest observed rates of child marriages (below the age of 18) were Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Nepal, all of which had rates above 50%. Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali, and Ethiopia were the countries with child marriage rates greater than 20% below the age of 15, according to multiple 2003–2009 surveys. Each year, an estimated 12 million girls globally become married under the age of 18.
In 2021, 13.3 million babies, or about 10 percent of the total worldwide, were born to mothers under 20 years old.