Child marriage refers to a spousal relationship in which one or both spouses are under 18 years old. Although this definition sounds straightforward, the realities of child marriage can be complicated. Both the words “child” and “marriage” are sometimes interpreted differently.
The internationally recognized definition of a child – established by the Convention of the Rights of the Child, one of the most universally endorsed and widely ratified treaties in history – is “every human being below the age of 18 years”. This is also the legal definition used in most parts of the world.
But in a small number of countries, adulthood, or the “age of majority” may be reached before age 18.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes an exception for national laws recognizing an earlier age of majority.
Some countries and cultures consider adulthood a state achieved upon marriage – for example, countries where full age means the age of 18 years and above, and any married woman is deemed to be of full age. And other countries have an older minimum age of marriage, such as Nepal, where the law requires people be at least 20 when they marry.
The concept of marriage also varies – it can be formal or informal, governed by civil law, common law or religious law, or simply be a customary practice. In many parts of the world, for example, marriages may be recognized by the community without legal registration. Marriages may be marked with a ceremony, or there may be no ceremony or legal action at all. In countries where polygamous marriage is not permitted by civil law, second and third marriages often take place without formal registration.
Major surveys try to account for this variation when measuring child marriage. Multiple Indicators Cluster Surveys and Demographic Health Surveys, for example, collect information on the date and age at which a woman and man first started living with their first spouses or partners.
In the end, these varying definitions make little difference for a child’s safety and health. Child marriage is a serious human rights violation that directly threatens lives, health, safety and education of girls and boys, limiting their future prospects.