Laws that set a minimum age of marriage are an important way to safeguard boys and girls from being married before they are ready.
It is important that children are recognised in the law as being children and that they are accorded the full protection of the law.
Governments need to have clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage. Adequate safeguards must be in place to ensure that parental consent or other exceptions are not used to force girls into marriage.
The existence of laws that set a minimum age for marriage is an important tool that helps those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters as children.
Child marriage or marriage without the free and full consent of both spouses is a human rights violation and is not in line with several international and regional agreements, including:
Many international instruments call for a uniform age of marriage and emphasise the importance of free, full and informed consent to marriage.
The CRC recommends that the minimum age of marriage be 18 years, while CEDAW obligates States to ensure, on the basis of equality between men and women, the right to freely choose a spouse and enter into marriage only with free and full consent.
A full list of provisions from International and Regional Instruments relevant to protection from child marriage, prepared by the Africa Child Policy Forum can be found here.
Even where strong legal frameworks exist, their enforcement is often weak. Here are some common problems – and possible solutions.
Problem: Age of marriage laws contradict each other. Solutions: Define a child as an individual under the age of 18, without exception. Set the minimum legal age of marriage for both males and females at 18. Harmonise all legal systems (civil, criminal, family and customary) to that standard.
Problem: Child marriages happen outside of the law. Solutions: Work with religious and traditional leaders to raise awareness of the law, the harmful impact of child marriage and alternatives for girls. Make sure they ask for proof of age before a wedding and report child marriage cases to the relevant authorities.
Problem: Birth and marriage registration is weak or non-existent. Solutions: Make birth and marriage registration mandatory and free (or low cost). Make sure there is an effective civil registration system by investing in the infrastructure and training of local authorities.
Different religions or traditions’ position on child marriage are misinterpreted. Solutions: Meet and create space for respectful dialogues with religious and traditional leaders. Promote alternative interpretations of religious texts to show that no religion promotes child marriage. Make religious and traditional leaders aware of the negative impact of child marriage.
Child marriage happens in rural areas with few resources to implement the law. Solutions: Create or strengthen child protection systems. Support legal aid systems and services.
Underage victims of child marriage struggle to take their case to court, due to their age, knowledge or resources. Solutions: Train local law enforcement authorities to respond to child marriage and gender-based violence cases. Strengthen access to free legal services for victims of child marriage.