Child marriage is a marriage or similar union, formal or informal, between a child and an adult or another child under a certain age, typically age eighteen. The vast majority of child marriages are between a girl and a man, and are rooted in gender inequality.
Although the age of majority (legal adulthood) and marriageable age are usually designated at age 18, both vary across countries and therefore the marriageable age may be older or younger in a given country. Even where the age is set at 18 years, cultural traditions may override legislation and many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy.
Child marriage violates the rights of children and has widespread and long-term consequences for child brides and child grooms. For girls, in addition to mental health issues and a lack of access to education and career opportunities, this includes adverse health effects as a result of early pregnancy (including teenage pregnancy) and childbirth. There is little research on boys in child marriages, but effects on boys include being ill-prepared for certain responsibilities such as providing for the family, early fatherhood, and a lack of access to education and career opportunities. Child marriage is related to child betrothal, and it includes civil cohabitation and court-approved early marriages after teenage pregnancy. Causes of child marriages include poverty, bride price, dowry, cultural traditions, religious and social pressures, regional customs, fear of the child remaining unmarried into adulthood, illiteracy, and perceived inability of women to work for money. Research indicates that comprehensive sex education can help to prevent child marriage.
Child marriages have been common throughout history and continue to be fairly widespread, particularly in developing countries such as parts of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. However, even in developed countries such as the United States legal exceptions still allow child marriage in 46 US states. The incidence of child marriage has been falling in most parts of the world. 2018 data from UNICEF showed that about 21 percent of young women worldwide (aged 20 to 24) were married as children; this is a 25 percent decrease from 10 years previously. The countries with the highest observed rates of child marriages below the age of 18 were Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Nepal with rates above 50%. Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali and Ethiopia were the countries with child marriage rates greater than 20% below the age of 15, according to 2003–2009 surveys. Globally, an estimated 12 million girls annually are being married under the age of 18.