BBC World Service
I have a right to...

Right to marriage and family and to equal rights of men and women during and after marriage

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Article 16: Right to marriage and family and to equal rights of men and women during and after marriage

  • Child marriage disproportionately affects girls and is found nearly everywhere. It is particularly widespread in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of the girls in some countries are married by the time they are 18.
  • Girls are forced to be married by their parents or male abductors for various economic and cultural reasons.
  • UNICEF has publicly labelled child marriage as a human rights violation and is working to combat the practice by developing education programmes and empowering local human rights organisations in regions where the practice is widespread.


Across the globe, children, primarily girls, are forced into early marriage.

It is difficult to estimate the number of early marriages because many early marriages are unregistered and unofficial, but the highest rates appear to occur in Mali, Niger, Uganda, Burkina Faso and Cameroon.

Girls as young as 8 or 10 years old are forced to be married, often with much older men.

Impact of Early Marriage

Despite its pervasiveness, forced early marriage has rarely been viewed as a human rights violation in itself. Nonetheless, it violates Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as several other human rights treaties, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world's most widely ratified human rights treaty.

Recently, UNICEF has publicly demanded an end to child marriages. A study on the practice declared that it often inflicts physical and emotional anguish on young girls and deprives them of the right to give free and full consent to marriage and the right to education.

Early marriage is also linked to health risks, notably due to premature pregnancy. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death worldwide for girls aged 15 to 19.

UNICEF has also asserted that domestic violence is common in child marriages.


In some cases, parents willingly marry off their young girls in order to increase the family income or protect the girl from the risk of unwanted sexual advances or even promiscuity.

Virginity can also attract a particularly high dowry for families. The lack of employment opportunities for girls and the perceived need for children all add to the pressure for early marriage.

Sometimes families will promise a newborn daughter to another family who will formally propose marriage. In the case of child marriages involving those under 10, a girl will live with her in-laws or stay with her own family until the two families agree to an exchange.

In other cases, girls are abducted on their way to school or the market and are forced into marriage.

In some places, abduction is viewed as a way of acquiring a wife. A man abducts a girl, hides her, and then rapes her until she becomes pregnant. Once he is the father of her child, he can easily claim her as his bride.

Although the laws in most countries prohibit forceful marriage, after a girl is abducted her family often agrees to marriage.


UNICEF has pushing for governments and local organisations to discourage child marriages by educating both parents and children about the negative sides of the phenomenon. It is also urging governments that have not already done so to increase the legal age of marriage.

In addition, services must be developed to help young girls who are already married. They may be in need of special advice concerning abuse and reproduction.

UNICEF has already developed the Sara Adolescent Girl Communication Initiative in ten Eastern and Southern African countries in order to educate girls and their families about information to which they may otherwise not have access.

The initiative includes the development of a radio series which emphasises the importance of staying in school and addresses issues such as HIV/AIDS, domestic workload, female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.

Local organisations are doing their part as well.

For example in Ethiopia, The Family Guidance Association runs 18 clinics and more than 500 community-based centres in five of the country's nine regions. The clinics promote safer sex practices and offer advice on relationships.