THE BLOG
11/18/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

The Legal Loopholes That Perpetuate Child Marriage

Co-authored by Aleta Sprague and Megan Arthur

Between today and this time next year, around 15 million girls under the age of 18 will be married -- joining the ranks of another 700 million former child brides around the world, including 250 million who were married before the age of 15. In some countries, the ratio of married girls to married boys can be as extreme as 72:1. Even within the United States, there are eight married girls for every married boy.

Child marriage turns the economic and family advantages we associate with marriage on their head, and has devastating and intergenerational impacts for girls and their children: it commonly interrupts or ends girls' education, lowers their chances of success in the job market and financial independence, increases their risk of marital violence and abuse and jeopardizes their health through limiting their control over their own bodies and exposing them to early pregnancy and childbearing.

While eliminating child marriage will require action on many fronts, enacting national legislation to ban the practice is a critical first step. Yet among the 190 UN member states that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 12 percent do not set a general legal minimum age of marriage that protects girls below 18 from marriage. Additionally, many countries allow for girls to be married at younger ages with parental consent, providing no protection for the majority of cases where early marriage is instigated by adult family members. Among a smaller group, early marriage is permitted under customary and religious legal systems that exist alongside civil law, undermining the legal protections put in place by states. Once these two loopholes are considered, 30 percent of countries do not protect 15-year-old girls from early marriage.

Moreover, 13 percent of States parties establish a general minimum age of marriage that is lower for girls than for boys. Taking into account exceptions for parental consent, 32 percent of States parties permit girls to be married at younger ages than boys; in nine percent that age can be three to four years younger. By sanctioning these age disparities, states sanction gender inequality itself, which has damaging impacts across families, communities and societies. What's more, these provisions explicitly contravene countries' stated commitments to the principle of gender equality, which is enshrined in both the CRC and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though these numbers indicate that far too many countries are failing to take basic steps to prevent child marriage, the good news is that laws have improved over the last two decades. A study of 104 low- and middle-income countries between 1995 and 2013 shows that the percentage of States parties that established a legal minimum age of marriage of at least 18 years increased from 76 percent to 87 percent. The loophole permitting girls to be married with parental permission also seems to be narrowing; while only 20 percent legally protected girls below 18 from being married with their parents' consent in 1995, this rose to 47 percent by 2013.

It's easy to dismiss the continuing prevalence of child marriage as a product of culture -- but that ignores the fact that laws shape cultures, and vice versa. At a minimum, countries should enact legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 and eliminate gender disparities in the law. In addition to furthering gender equality, these reforms would help countries promote many of the other goals of the CRC, including increased access to education and improved child health. Our research findings help to make country actions more visible to their citizens and the global community. We hope that advocates will use this information to examine gaps in protection and hold countries accountable, and that policymakers will identify geographically and economically similar nations that are better performers and explore policy options. Together, we can truly make history by eliminating child marriage worldwide.

This blog post is the third of a four-part series from the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, presenting new data and examining progress toward securing children's rights around the world 25 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted at the United Nations. Check out the previous posts on access to education and child labor.