Preventing Child Marriage: A Complex Cultural Battle

The following is a mini-paper written for my Women in Criminal Justice class. This is the first time I’ve done any research on–or, to be honest, really been aware of–the problem of child marriage. I didn’t have space to really deal with this in the rich, complex way I would have liked to (limit of 5 pages) … but  I’d love to find some more sources that deal with the cultural difficulties involved with working against child marriage as an institution.


Preventing Child Marriage: A Complex Cultural Battle


This paper argues that child marriage constitutes a significant act of international violence against girls and women and that action is necessary in order to protect girls from the consequences of being married as children. Recently, child marriage and its implications for girls and women have become more visible in the popular press. For example, Essence and National Geographic magazines have both published pieces on the devastating effects of child marriage in the past five years (Amber, 2008; Gorney, 2011). However, child marriage is still largely invisible in that it gets little attention relative to the enormity of its effects. This paper suggests that child marriage is a significant international problem. Specifically, this paper argues that child marriage is a human rights violation targeting girls in three particular ways: Child marriage causes girls to be denied education, it makes girls vulnerable to abuse, and it increases girls’ risk of serious health problems. Further, this paper makes recommendations for actions by international governing bodies to deal with the problem of child marriage.

Describing Child Marriage

Child marriage occurs when a person under age 18 is married (Nour, 2006). Although both boys and girls are married as minors around the globe, child marriage disproportionately affects girls; in Mali, for example, just one underage boy is married for every 72 underage girls who are married (Nour, 2006). Child marriage has recently become more visible on an individual level, largely because of the cases of two Yemeni girls. Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali, 9, and Nujood Ali, 10, both came forward to accuse their husbands of maltreatment (Worth, 2008). Ali’s courage resulted in a precedent-setting legal case when she was granted a divorce. Such cases aid feminists and activists in describing the individual consequences of child marriage because they help put innocent faces to an otherwise largely invisible institution.

The Contexts of Child Marriages

Child marriages occur most commonly in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (UNICEF, 2010). In a 2005 study of women aged 20-24, UNICEF found that the highest incidences of women being married as minors were in Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangeladash, Guinea, and Burkina Faso; all these countries had child-marriage rates of higher than 60 percent (UNICEF, 2005). Appendix A shows a map and a bar chart to help visualize the geography and prevalence of child marriage. However, these figures are estimates. Child marriages are often conducted in secret or at the least are not officially recorded. Scholars report that child marriage is closely connected with human trafficking of minor girls, and investment in covering up this criminal activity further distorts efforts to understand the prevalence of child marriage (Ghosh, 2009; Mikhail, 2002). For example, only 490 cases of child marriage were reported in India for the five-year period preceding 2006, although experts believe “the percentage of under-18 marriages of girls in the country has increased from 34% in 1998–99 to 45.6% in 2005–06” (p. 723). Most sources estimate that around 60 million currently living girls and women are victims of child marriage (Terkel, 2010; UNICEF, 2010).


            This paper argues that three main effects of child marriage are troublesome. Child marriage causes girls to be denied education, makes girls vulnerable to abuse, and increases girls’ risk of serious health problems. It is unsurprising that child marriage disproportionately affects girls; it also disproportionately results in serious life problems for those girls as compared to boys who marry prior to age 18. Child marriage, for girls, “leads towards inadequate socialization, discontinuation of education, physiological and psychological damage to girls due to early and frequent pregnancies, and quite often an early widowhood” (Nagi, 1993, p. 2). Raj, Saggurti, Balaiah, & Silverman (2009) found maternity-related complications including higher incidences of repeat childbirth in under 24 months, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sterilization in women who had been married as children. Girl brides also face issues including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, and increased chances of cervical cancer (Nour, 2006). In addition, one factor that consistently correlates with child marriage is a low level of education (Nour, 2006). Less education and consistent sex-related health complications both mean that child brides have less opportunity—in terms of fewer resources and more complications—for escape, leaving them extremely vulnerable to all types of abuse.

Troublingly, child marriage primarily impacts girls from rural and poor families, who may see girl children as an economic burden (Kamal, 2010; Singh & Kapur, 2005). In some cases, families marry their daughters early in hopes that they will have better lives with a husband than the family could provide (Gorney, 2011; Worth, 2008; UNICEF, 2010). Whatever the reason for the prevalence of the underage marriage of girls, child marriage certainly correlates with many different identities. Religion, ethnicity, class, nationality, and other factors affect child marriage, making the issue ripe for third-wave feminist analysis and intervention (Van Wormer & Bartollas, 2010). Feminists should be particularly invested in preventing child marriage since it perpetuates generational cycles of inequity, disempowerment, and poverty, all of which already affect women in greater numbers than men. Indeed, feminists and other scholars have proven that child marriage causes girls to be denied education, makes girls vulnerable to abuse, and increases girls’ risk of serious health problems. Thus, child marriage is a serious category of international violence against girls and women.

            However, establishing this belief cross-culturally—a first step toward preventing child marriage—is not easy. Child marriage is “linked to social and economic expectations … [child marriage is affected by] conflicts and pressures to maintain social and gendered behavioural norms” (Gangoli, McCarry, & Razak, 2009, p. 428). Gangoli, McCarry, & Razak found that the difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage is often blurred; girls are socialized into wanting to please their parents and adhere to their home culture, making it extremely difficult for them to refuse an arranged child marriage even if they live in a country where legal help is available to them. The age of consent is also a controversial issue (Bunting, 2005). Further, Gorney’s reporting shows that families often believe that marrying girls protects them from sexual predation because their husband will protect them from rape—at least, he will protect them from rape by men besides himself. In most cases, local cultural resistance to the criminalization of child marriage occurs for many reasons and is extremely strong.

Current Law and Recommendations

International bodies, most notably the United Nations, have expressed disapproval toward child marriage. The UN has opposed child marriage since 1948. “Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that persons must be at ‘full age’ when married and that marriage should be entered into ‘freely’ and with ‘full consent’” (Nour, 2006). Despite this international statement, national legislation has proven difficult to pass even in the United States. Republicans in the House of Representatives successfully blocked the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010—even after it passed the Senate—because they believed it would lead to increased abortions (Terkel, 2010). In addition, legal and social policy opposing child marriage meets with overwhelming opposition in countries where child marriage is the cultural norm. In effect, laws against child marriage actually contribute to the invisibility of its victims as they cause child marriages to increasingly take place in secret.

Gaffney-Rhys (2011) argues that, while law is important for establishing understandings about child marriage, national and local social programs are better for preventing it. This paper suggests that social policy is now far more important in working to prevent child marriage than legal policy. Social programs like those discussed by Erulkar & Muthengi (2009) would support awareness and education about child marriage in countries where early marriage is the norm. Such programs could help girls and their families gain access to alternatives in cases where girls are married for protection. Further, aggressive and culturally sensitive social programming would significantly impact the steadiest indicator of child marriage: education. Better education for girls will likely have the result of decreasing the prevalence of child marriage. Finally, at the very least, social programs could provide girls with more knowledge about how to take care of themselves in the instance that they are married and facing health complications or abuse.


This paper argues that child marriage constitutes a substantial act of international violence against girls and women because of its prevalence and its negative consequences for girls’ health and education. In addition, it puts girls at significant risk for physical abuse, including sexual assault. This paper further suggests that privileged organizations and nations such as the U.S. have an obligation to fund and organize social programs to educate girls and their families in affected regions about the dangers of child marriage and about other viable options for girls’ social success. Such programming stands to improve the situation of girls and women on a global scale.




Amber, J. (2008, Nov.). Child brides. Essence, 145-150 and 184-185.

Bunting, A. (2005). Stages of development: Marriage of girls and teens as an international human rights issue. Social & Legal Studies, 14(1), 17-38.

Erulkar, A. S., & Muthengi, E. (2009). Evaluation of Berhane Hewan: A program to delay child marriage in rural Ethiopia. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35(1), 6-14.

Gaffney-Rhys, R. (2011). International law as an instrument to combat child marriage. International Journal of Human Rights, 15(3), 359-373.

Gangoli, G., McCarry, M., & Razak, A. Child marriage or forced marriage?: South Asian communities in North East England. Children & Society, 23, 418-429.

Ghosh, B. (2009). Trafficking in women and children in India: nature, dimensions and strategies for prevention. The International Journal of Human Rights, 13(5), 716-738.

Gorney, C. (2011, June). Too young to wed: The secret world of child brides. National Geographic, 219(6), 78-99.

Kamal, S.M.M. (2010). Geographical variations and contextual effecton child marriage in Bangladesh. Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies, 17(2), 37-57.

Mikhail, S. L. B. (2002). Child marriage and child prostitution: Two forms of sexual exploitation. Gender and Development 10(1), 43-49.

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Nour N. (2006). Health consequences of child marriage in Africa. Emerging Infectious Diseases 12(11). Retrieved from

Raj, A., Saggurti, N., Balaiah, D., & Silverman, J.G. (2009). Prevalence of child marriage and its effect on fertility and fertility-control outcomes of young women in India: A cross-sectional, observational study. Lancet, 373(9678), 1883-1889.

Singh, K., & Kapur, D. (2005). Law, violence, and the girl child. Health and Human Rights 5(2), 8-29.

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Van Wormer, K. S., & Bartollas, C. (2010). Theoretical perspectives on women and the criminal justice aystem (3rd ed., pp. 3-26). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Worth, R. F. (2008, June 29). Tiny voices defy child marriage in Yemen.  The New York Times. Retrieved from



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