Press release

Research sheds light on question of child marriage always being wrong

Published on 19 March 2018

Research sheds light on question of child marriage always being wrongOne in three girls in developing countries, aside from China, get married before they turn 18 (UN Women, 2016), yet legislating 18 as a minimum age for marriage ignores the reality of why many young girls marry. Ahead of the 62nd Commission for the Status of Women (CSW62) meeting in New York, research from a leading UK university indicates that marriage practices, conditions of poverty and limited prospects need to be addressed by NGOs, governments and international agencies if women’s futures are to improve. 

While marriage is practiced universally, the meaning of it, is very different in different places, as research funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research has shown. In some societies, marriage can be an exploitative and demeaning arrangement which keeps young girls and women trapped in poverty, and without the freedom to make choices about their own futures —but this is not the case everywhere.

Nicola Ansell, Professor of Human Geography, Brunel University argues: “In societies where sex outside marriage is unacceptable, it is hard to ban marriage without also banning sex. And legislating against teenagers engaging in sex can raise even deeper problems. Prohibiting sex below the age of 18 also makes it almost impossible to deliver sexual and reproductive health services to young women; a situation that can easily put lives at risk”.

“Even somewhere like Lesotho, where marriages are often problematic, there’s little to be gained by insisting young women wait until they’re 18 to get married. Here, it is the social constitution of marriage that causes problems, and that a minimum marriage age alone will not be able to solve. For example, the requirement to pay bridewealth means men can’t marry until they’re older and when they do they feel that the payment entitles them to loyalty and obedience from their wives. It’s this that makes young women vulnerable.”

According to the research marriage may be much safer than other choices that are available to young women with minimal education, no access to an independent income, and where parents want to focus their resources on younger, more dependent offspring. It may offer economic security, an opportunity to pursue a livelihood independent of parents, protection even from an abusive home life. 

The global campaign supported by NGOs and international agencies to prohibit marriage below the age of 18 does not propose a response that considers the context and complexity of child marriage. As the most common ages at which children are married are 16 and 17 (UNFPA, 2018), the inclusion of all under-18s in statistical measures of child marriage inflates numbers and fails address unique challenges of each country. 

At CSW62, a panel of NGOs and academics will propose policy ideas and innovations to better empower women to make choices about their own lives. They will argue that adequate policies, programmes, and investments in women’s health and education not only lift women’s living standards but also pave a way towards gender equality. Unless women are equipped to reach their full potential and are empowered to make their own life choices, tackling major issues like child marriage will be missed. 

Confirmed speakers include: 

  • Chaired by Thokozile Ruzvidzo, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
  • Gina Porter, Durham University
  • Nicola Ansell, Brunel University
  • Barbara Kalima-Phiri, World Vision International


For further information or to request an interview with Nicola Ansell please contact Vivienne Benson on [email protected] +447789013453

Notes to editors  

  • Join the session at CSW62 to propose #policies4 improving women’s life choices.

Date: 20 March 2018

Time: 10:30AM-12:00PM

Venue: Salvation Army, NY 10022

Room: Downstairs

  • Event details: 
  • The event is free to all registrants of CSW62
  • To tweet about the session and #Policies4 campaign:

What are the #Policies4 improving women’s life choices? Join the #CSW62 discussion on 20 March, 10.30-12.00 at the Salvation Army, NY 10022 @WorldVision @ECA_Official @ESRC

Is child marriage always wrong? Let’s talk about #policies4 improving women’s life choices – @UN_Women @PlanUK @UN_CSW @NGO_CSW_NY –

  • The session is hosted by the Institute of Development Studies and the Impact Initiative.

The Impact Initiative for International Development Research aims to increase the uptake and impact of research from two major research programmes jointly funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID): the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme – 

The Institute of Development Studies is a leading global institution for development research, teaching and learning, and impact and communications, based at the University of Sussex. Its vision is one of equal and sustainable societies, locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice. They believe that cutting-edge research, knowledge and evidence are crucial in shaping the changes needed for our broader vision to be realised, and to support people, societies and institutions to navigate the challenges ahead –

Key contacts

Vivienne Benson

Communications and Impact Manager

+44 (0)1273 915653


Related content