Child marriage

Small child brides

Child marriage and child betrothal customs occur in various times and places, whereby children are given in matrimony - before marriageable age as defined by the commentator and often before puberty. Today such customs are fairly widespread in parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America: in former times it occurred also in Europe. It is frequently associated with arranged marriage. In some cases only one marriage-partner is a child, usually the female, due to importance placed upon female virginity, the inability of women to work for money and to women's shorter reproductive life period relative to men's. An increase in the advocacy of human rights, whether as women's rights or as children's rights, has caused traditions of child marriage to decrease in many areas.



Child marriages may depend upon socio-economic status. The aristocracy of some cultures, as in the European feudal era tended to use child marriage as a method to secure political ties. Families are able to cement political and/or financial ties by having their children marry. The betrothal is considered a binding contract upon the families and the children. The breaking of a betrothal can have serious consequences both for the families and for the betrothed individuals themselves.

Elsewhere, where daughters are considered a liability, it may be poorer people who tend to marry early.

Child marriage by region

European Judaism

In Ashkenazi communities in the Middle Ages girls were married off very young in the Jewish community.[1] Despite the young threshold for marriage a large age gap between the spouses was opposed.[2][3] Child marriage was possible in Judaism due to the very low marriageable age for females. A ketannah (literally meaning little [one]) was any girl between the age of 3 years and that of 12 years plus one day;[4] a ketannah was completely subject to her father's authority, and her father could arrange a marriage for her without her agreement.[4] If the father was dead or missing the brothers of the ketannah, collectively, had the right to arrange a marriage for her, as had her mother,[4] although in these situations a ketannah would always have the right to annul her marriage even if it was the first.[5] According to the Talmud a father is commanded not to marry his daughter to anyone until she grows up and says 'I want this one'.[6] A marriage that takes place without the consent of the girl is not an effective legal marriage.[7] If the marriage did end (due to divorce or the husband's death), any further marriages were optional; the ketannah had the right to annul them.[5] The choice of a ketannah to annul a marriage, known in Hebrew as mi'un (literally meaning refusal/denial/protest),[5] lead to a true annulment, not a divorce; a divorce document (get) was not necessary,[8] and a ketannah who did this was not regarded by legal regulations as a divorcee, in relation to the marriage.[9] Unlike divorce, mi'un was regarded with distaste by many rabbinic writers,[5] even in the Talmud;[10] in earlier classical Judaism, one major faction - the House of Shammai - argued that such annulment rights only existed during the betrothal period (erusin) and not once the actual marriage (nissu'in) had begun.[11]


Despite many poor countries enacting marriageable age laws to limit marriage to a minimum age of 16 to 18, depending on jurisdiction, traditional marriages of girls of younger ages are widespread. Poverty, religion, tradition, and conflict make the rate of child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa similar to that in South Asia.[12]

In many tribal systems a man pays a bride price to the girl's family in order to marry her. (Compare with the customs of dowry and dower.) In many parts of Africa, this payment, in cash, cattle, or other valuables, decreases as a girl gets older. Even before a girl reaches puberty, it is common for a married girl to leave her parents to be with her husband. Many marriages are related to poverty, with parents needing the bride price of a daughter to feed, clothe, educate, and house the rest of the family. Meanwhile, a male child in these countries is more likely to gain a full education, gain employment and pursue a working life, thus tending to marry later. In Mali, the female:male ratio of marriage before age 18 is 72:1; in Kenya, 21:1.[12]

The various UN-commissioned reports indicate that in many Sub-Saharan countries, there is a high incidence of marriage among girls younger than 15. Many governments have tended to overlook the particular problems resulting from child marriage, including obstetric fistulae, premature births, stillbirth, sexually transmitted diseases (including cervical cancer), and malaria.[12]

In parts of Ethiopia and Nigeria numerous girls are married before the age of 15, some as young as the age of 7.[13] In parts of Mali 39% of girls are married before the age of 15. In Niger and Chad, over 70% of girls are married before the age of 18.[12]

In South Africa the law provides for respecting the marriage practices of traditional marriages, whereby a person might be married as young as 12 for females and 14 for males.[12] Early marriage is cited as "a barrier to continuing education for girls (and boys)". This includes absuma (arranged marriages set up between cousins at birth), bride kidnapping and elopement decided on by the children.[14]



According to UNICEF's "State of the World's Children-2009" report, 47% of India's women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56% marrying before age 18 in rural areas.[15] The report also showed that 40% of the world's child marriages occur in India.[16]

The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was passed during the tenure of British rule on pre-partition India. It forbade the marriage of a male younger than twenty-one or a female younger than eighteen. A marriage fell under the scope of this Act if either of the contracting parties met the established criterion of a child.[citation needed] South Asia has the highest prevalence of child marriage of any region in the world.

According to "National Plan of Action for Children 2005" (published by the Department of Women and Child Development of India), a goal has been set to eliminate child marriage completely by 2010. This plan is proving to be successful, though it is still difficult to monitor every child due to the sheer population of India.[17]

Similarly the tradition is still practiced in some rural areas of Pakistan through Vani and other customs like Watta satta and Swara.[18] The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 16 for girls.[19]

According to statistics from 2005 45% of women then between 25 and 29 were married by the age of 15 in Bangladesh.[13] According to the “State of the World’s Children-2009” report, 63% of all women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18.[15] The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is making progress in increasing women's education and employment opportunities. This, combined with specific education about child marriage and cooperation with religious leaders, is hoped to decrease child marriage.[citation needed]

Among the Vedda of tropical Sri Lanka girls once married before the age of nine and had relations with their husbands before sexual maturity.[20]

Middle East

Hadith sources state that Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha when she had reached the age of nine. (Sahih al-Bukhari, 7:62:64). [21][22] This was not seen as improper as individuals were considered mature at an earlier age than in the modern West:[23] in fact Aisha's youth was stressed by early commentators probably to underline her virginity. In Chiras in Persia, historically, girls married before puberty.[20]

Prepubescent children may be married or promised for marriage, following a detailed procedure, but "a girl is not handed over to her husband until she is fit for marital congress", as with Muhammad's action with Aisha.[24]

Roughly half of Yemeni girls are married before 18, some as young as eight.[25] Yemeni law set the minimum age for marriage at 15 but tribal customs often flouted the law. In 1999 the minimum marriage age of fifteen for women was abolished; the onset of puberty, interpreted by conservatives to be at the age of nine, was set as a requirement for consummation of marriage.[26] In practice "Yemeni law allows girls of any age to wed, but it forbids sex with them until the indefinite time they’re 'suitable for sexual intercourse.'"[25]

In April 2008 Nujood Ali, a 10-year-old girl, successfully obtained a divorce. Her case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18.[27] Later in 2008, the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood proposed to define the minimum age for marriage at 18 years. The law was passed in April 2009, with the age voted for as 17. But the law was dropped the following day following manoeuvers by opposing parliamentarians. Negotiations to pass the legislation continue.[28] Meanwhile, Yemenis inspired by Nujood's efforts continue to push for change, with Nujood involved in at least one rally.[29] And one awareness campaign claims to have prevented some early marriages in the Yemeni governate of Amran.[30]

The widespread prevalence of child marriage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been documented by human rights groups[31][32]. Saudi clerics have justified the marriage of girls as young as 9, with sanction from the judiciary [33]. There are no laws defining the minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia, and girls as young as eight years of age can marry. The law in Saudi Arabia is islamic law, where there are no minimun age of marriage but the girl should approve the husband and the marriage before her parents arranges her marriage, and she retain the right (by law) to be separated from any husband at any time and at any age (so called KHUL'U), but she has to give back to the MAHAR to the husband (MAHAR in islamic law is a right for the female where the husband should give an agreed amount of money to her before marriage). [34].


In Indonesia the 1947 Law on Marriage stipulates that a woman must be at least 16 years old and a man must be at least 19 years old to marry. With the popular rise of social networking sites like Facebook underage marriage appears to be increasing in areas like Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta. Couples have reported becoming acquainted through Facebook and continuing their relationships until girls became pregnant.[35] Among the Atjeh of Sumatra girls formerly married before puberty. The husbands, though usually older, were still unfit for sexual union.[20]Among the islanders of Fiji, also, marriage took place before puberty.[20]

The Marquesas Islands have been noted for their sexual culture. Many sexual activities seen as taboo in western cultures are viewed appropriate by the native culture. One of these differences is that young children are introduced and educated to sex at a very young age. Contact with Western societies has changed many of these customs, so research into their pre-Western social history has to be done by reading antique writings. Children slept in the same room as their parents and were able to witness their parents while they had sex. Intercourse simulation became real penetration as soon as boys were physically able. Adults found simulation of sex by children to be funny. As children approached 11 attitudes shifted toward girls. When a child reaches adulthood, they are educated on sexual techniques by a much older adult.

Yuri Lisyansky in his memoirs[36] reports that:

The next day, as soon as it was light, we were surrounded by a still greater multitude of these people. There were now a hundred females at least; and they practised all the arts of lewd expression and gesture, to gain admission on board. It was with difficulty I could get my crew to obey the orders I had given on this subject. Amongst these females were some not more than ten years of age. But youth, it seems, is here no test of innocence; these infants, as I may call them, rivalled their mothers in the wantonness of their motions and the arts of allurement.

Adam Johann von Krusenstern in his book[37] about the same expedition as Yuri's, reports that a father, brought a 10-12 year old girl on his ship, and she had sex with the crew. According to the book[38] of Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu and Étienne Marchand, 8 year old girls had sex and other unnatural acts, in public.[39][40]

North America


In Canada under 16s can get married if they are pregnant and have the court's approval .[41] People are on average 33 when they are married.[42]

United States

Laws regarding child marriage vary in the different states of the United States. Generally, children 16 and over may marry with parental consent, with the age of 18 being the minimum in all but two states to marry without parental consent. Those under 16 generally require a court order in addition to parental consent.[43]

Until 2008 the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practiced child marriage through the concept of 'spiritual (religious only) marriages,' as soon as girls are ready to bear children, as part of its polygamy practice and laws have raised the age of legal marriage in response to criticism of the practice.[44] In 2008 the Church changed its policy in the United States to no longer marry individuals younger than the local legal age.[citation needed] In 2007 church leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to statutory rape of a minor due to arranging a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man.[45] In March 2008 the state of Texas believed that children at the Yearning For Zion Ranch were being married to adults and were being abused.[46] The state of Texas removed all 468 children from the ranch and placed them into temporary state custody.[46] After the Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Texas acted improperly in removing them from the YFZ Ranch, the children were returned to their parents or relatives.[47]

See also


  1. ^ Kiddushin (tosafot) 41a
  2. ^ Yebamot 44a
  3. ^ Sanhedrin 76a
  4. ^ a b c This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Majority", a publication now in the public domain.
  5. ^ a b c d This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Mi'un", a publication now in the public domain.
  6. ^ Shulchan Aruch Even Ha'ezer, 37:8
  7. ^ Shulchan Aruch Even Ha'ezer, 42:1
  8. ^ Yebamot 107a
  9. ^ Yebamot 108a
  10. ^ Yebamot 109a
  11. ^ Yebamot 107a
  12. ^ a b c d e Nour, Nawal M. (2006), "Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa", Emerging Infectious Diseases 12 (11): 1644–1649, ISSN 1080-6059, PMID 17283612, 
  13. ^ a b Child Marriage Factsheet: State of World Population 2005 - UNFPA
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^ "40 p.c. child marriages in India: UNICEF". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 18 January 2009. 
  17. ^ Status of children in India
  18. ^ BBC NEWS | World | South Asia | Forced child marriage tests Pakistan law
  19. ^ .,21985,24589595-5005961,00.html. [dead link]
  20. ^ a b c d Elie Metchnikoff : The Nature of Man: Studies in Optimistic Philosophy. Putnam, New York, 1903. p. 90
  21. ^ D. A. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 40
  22. ^ Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Harper San Francisco, 1992, p. 157.
  23. ^ Colin Turner, Islam: The Basics, Routledge Press, pp. 34-35
  24. ^ Levy, Reuben (2000. First published 1957), "The Social Structure of Islam", Orientalism: Early Sources, XII, London & New York: Routledge, p. 106, ISBN 9780415209106, 
  25. ^ a b Power, Carla (12 August 2009), Nujood Ali & Shada Nasser win “Women of the Year Fund 2008 Glamour Award”, Yemen Times,, retrieved 16 February 2010 
  26. ^ Human Rights Watch (2001), "Yemen: Human Rights Developments", World Report 2001, Human Rights Watch,, retrieved 8 April 2010 
  27. ^ Daragahi, Borzou (June 11, 2008), Yemeni bride, 10, says I won't, Los Angeles Times,, retrieved 16 February 2010 
  28. ^ Mahmoud Assamiee and Nadia Al-Sakkaf (25 March 2010), Relative breakthrough in Yemen’s early marriage dilemma, Yemen Times,, retrieved 8 April 2010 
  29. ^ Sadeq Al-Wesabi (25 February 2010), Yemen’s children say no to early marriage, Yemen Times,, retrieved 9 April 2010 
  30. ^ Mo’ath Monassar (22 March 2010), Awareness campaign stops early marriages in Amran, Yemen Times,, retrieved 9 April 2010 
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ "Top Saudi cleric: OK for young girls to wed". CNN. 17 January 2009. 
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ Voyage round the world in the Ship "Neva", Lisiansky, London 1814, p67
  37. ^ Reise um die Welt in den Jahren 1803, 1804, 1805 und 1806 auf Befehl Seiner Kaiserliche Majestät Alexanders des Ersten auf den Schiffen Nadeschda und Newa (Journey around the World in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806 at the Command of his Imperial Majesty Alexander I in the Ships Nadezhda and Neva) published in Saint Petersburg in 1810. volume I,p116
  38. ^ Voyage autour du monde par Étienne Marchand, précédé d'une introduction historique; auquel on a joint des recherches sur les terres australes de Drake, et un examen critique de voyage de Roggeween, avec cartes et figures, Paris, years VI-VIII, 4 vol. p109
  39. ^ the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality in volume 1,French Polynesia(Anne Bolin, Ph.D.),5. Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors,A. Children, edited by Robert T. Francoeur publish by Continuum International Publishing Group[1][2]
  40. ^ Sexual Behavior in Pre Contact Hawai’i: A Sexological Ethnography from Milton Diamond[3][4]
  41. ^
  42. ^ Statistics Canada
  43. ^ "Marriage Laws in the US by age"
  44. ^ D’Onofrio, Eve (2005), "Child Brides, Inegalitarianism, and the Fundamentalist Polygamous Family in the United States", International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 19 (3): 373–394, doi:10.1093/lawfam/ebi028, 
  45. ^ Dobner, Jennifer. Polygamist Leader Convicted in Utah. Associated Press. ABC News. 2007-09-25.
  46. ^ a b Blumenthal, Ralph. Court Says Texas Illegally Seized Sect's Children. 'The New York Times. 2008-05-23. Retrieved 2008-05-24.
  47. ^ Winslow, Ben (June 5, 2008), All FLDS children returned to parents, SAN ANGELO, Texas: Deseret News, 

External links

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