With the London Summit on Family Planning last Wednesday, a flurry of statistics and tweets came my way. Not knowing a great deal about family planning in other regions of the world, or the importance of the $2.6 bilion dollar’s worth of commitments announced, I decided to investigate.

Note: All charts are interactive, so grab your mouse and hover over them! Also, you can download a PDF copy here.

To begin, let’s take a look at the legal age for marriage, the earliest that you can marry without requiring parental and/or judicial approval (it depends on the state / country).

Minimum legal age for marriage without consent

United Nations Statistics Division Gender Info 2007

-1 denotes no information

Countries with a minimum legal age for marriage (women) below 18 years (per UNSD, Gender Info 2007):

Andorra – 16 (2001) Argentina – 16 (2002) Armenia – 17 (2002) Austria – 16 (2003)
Azerbaijan – 17 (2007) Barbados – 16 (2002) Benin – 15 (2005) Bolivia – 14 (1995)
Burkina Faso – 17 (2005) Cameroon – 15 (2000) Congo Dem. Rep. – 15 (2006) Costa Rica – 15 (2003)
Dominica – 16 (2003) Egypt – 16 (2003) Equatorial Guinea – 12 (2004) Gabon – 15 (2005)
The Gambia – none (2005) Guinea – 17 (2007) Indonesia – 16 (2007) Iran – 15 (2003)
Israel – 17 (2003) North Korea – 17 (2005) South Korea – 16 (2007) Kuwait – 15 (2004)
Luxembourg – 16 (1997) Maldives – none (2001) Mali – 15 (2006) Mexico – 14 (2006)
Mozambique – 14 (2007) Niger – 15 (2007) Pakistan – 16 (2007) Paraguay – 16 (2005)
Peru – 16 (2007) Portugal – 16 (2003) Republic of Moldova – 16 (2006) Romania – 16 (2006)
Saudi Arabia – 17 (2003) Thailand – 17 (2006) Togo – 17 (2006) Turkey – 17 (2005)
Uganda – 16 (2003) Ukraine – 17 (2003) Uzbekistan – 17 (2006) Vanuatu – 16 (2007)
Venezuela – 14 (2006) Yemen – 15 (2002)

That is 46 countries with a legal marriage age under 18 years, but is this illegal under International Law?

Under the Universal Decleration of Human Rights (1948):

Article 16.
  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

and elaborated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990):

Article 1.
For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

the UN clearly recommends the minimum age of marriage to be 18. Individual countries, however, can still set their own age (un.org). So, in a country like Niger where marriage under 18 (minimum age of 15) is allowed, provided the child, the parents, and a judge agree, child marriage is legal.

Unfortunately, in most cases it doesn’t happen that way, and be it due to poverty, tradition, or gender (in)equality (Girls not brides) children are forcibly married.

But, does this just happen in countries with such a low legal minimum age?

Comparing the legal minimum age of marriage to the average age at marriage

United Nations Statistics Division Gender Info 2007 and United Nations Statistics Division Gender Info 2007

There appears to be a correlation between the legal minimum age and the average age of marriage, however it is not necessarily clear whether this is a causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). If we limit the data to just Africa, however, a slightly smaller subset of global cultures, we see that this correlation continues, suggesting that the age at marriage is affected by the legal minimum age and not just external factors like tradition or culture.

Once the legal age is above 18, though, this effect is less pronounced.

Comparing the legal minimum age of marriage to the average age at marriage for just Africa

UNSD Gender Info 2007 and UNSD Gender Info 2007

Interesting to note, is that the countries: Nepal (legal age: 20), Papua New Guinea (legal age: 21), and Sierra Leone (legal age: 21) all have an average age when married below their respective legal ages (19 vs. 20 for Nepal, 20.8 vs 21 for Papua New Guinea, and 19.8 vs 21 for Sierra Leone). There is clearly something going on there…the rule of law does not necessarily play such a guiding force as we might have thought.

Conversely, as the red line (denoting an average age at marriage of 18) suggests with only Niger at 17.6 years (1998) and Saw Tome and Principe at 17.8 years (1997) having an average age under 18 years, regardless of the law, the average marriage age is almost-universally above 18, i.e. not child marriage.

But all these inferences need to be kept in context: we are just looking at the average ages here, something that can very easily be distorted by a couple (relatively speaking) of outliers. There is another statistic, however, that we can look at, the proportion of women now aged 20 to 24 that were married when they were still children.

Child marriage among women aged 20-24

United Nations Statistics Division Gender Info 2007

-1 denotes no information

Combining this dataset (which, admittedly, doesn’t have each country’s figures for 2011 – Liberia’s stats come from 1986!) with data from the US Census for that year, we can work out a rough number of women 20-24 who were married as children.

Countries sorted by number of women 20-24 who were married as children

United Nations Statistics Division Gender Info 2007 and US Census

Country Legal Age of Marriage Child marriage among women 20-24 Number of women married as children
India 18 (2003) 46% (1999) 20.7 million
Bangladesh 18 (2003) 65% (1999) 4.1 million
Nigeria no data 43% (2003) 2.6 million
Indonesia 16 (2003) 24% (2002) 2.5 million
Brazil 21 (2004) 24% (1996) 1.8 million
Total: 47.4 million

The Girl Effect and Girls not brides quote that around 10 million girls aged under 18 are married worldwide every year. Staggeringly, even with this limited dataset (both in terms of countries and up-to-dateness) we get a similar figure – with 47.4 million women who were married as kids over 5 years of data (ages 20, 21, … 24), a number that we assume to stay ‘steady’, therefore as every year one ‘year’ leaves this dataset and a new one comes, we can only assume that around 9.54 million girls become new child brides every year.

10 million girls every year.

Originally, we looked at the impact that the legal age has on the average age at marriage, and we found a general trend that a higher legal age brings a higher average age. This new data, however, shows that 71% of these 10 million child brides – that’s 6.8 million girls – live in countries where the minimum legal age for marriage is at or above 18.

The law, clearly, doesn’t have the sort of impact that it should, and that we need it to have. Additionally, even in countries with a legal age under 18, for example Uzbekistan at 13% (2001), Armenia at 19% (2000), or Turkey at 23% (1998), all with a legal age of 17 (2003, 2004, 2007 respectively) the rate of child marriage is acutely lower than that of Bangladesh at 65% (1999) or Nepal at 56% (2001) both with legal age at or above 18 (18 (2003) and 20 (2001) respectively).

Yet with or without law, the horrors still continue.

With child marriage, comes a great difficulty for the child to abstain from sex, or insist on condom use and such, they are exposed to serious health risks such as premature pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and increasingly, HIV/AIDS (UNICEF Child Protection Information Sheet).

A trend that is clear when looking at the adolescent fertility rate, the number of births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19.

Adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19), 2010

World Bank World Development Indicators

If we limit the data to the five countries with the highest rate of child marriage, this relation is definite.

Women 20-24 who were married as children, Adolescent fertility rate

UNSD Gender Info 2007 and World Bank World Development Indicators

Country Child marriage among women 20-24 Adolescent fertility rate (births / 1,000 women)
Niger 77% (1998) 199 (2010)
Chad 71% (1997) 145 (2010)
Bangladesh 65% (1999) 73 (2010)
Guinea 65% (1999) 143 (2010)
Mali 65% (2001) 176 (2010)

Niger, Chad, Guinea, and Mali, all countries with staggeringly high rates of child marriage, make up the four highest rates of adolescent births.

With the asymmetric power complex of a child marriage, it can only amplify any traditional or religious reluctance towards the use of contraceptives, the same contraceptives that would protect against premature pregnancy (which can create health complications in both mother and child, CDC), malaria (the risk increases during pregnancy, especially when the mother is under 19, National Institutes of Health) and sexually transmitted infections. As is shown when looking at contraceptive use around the world.

Contraceptive prevalence rate, women 15-49

UNCF The State of the World’s Children 2006-2010

Unmet needs for family planning

UNSD Millennium Development Goals Database

Countries that have unmet needs for family planning, for contraceptives, are largely those that have the lowest contraceptive prevalence rate. When you sum the rate of use with the unmet needs for family planning, you get the proportion of people that are either using, or would like to use contraceptives. Surprisingly, this number is largely stable throughout different regions in the world, averaging at about 70%.

Percentage of people that either use, or would like to use, contraceptives

UNCF The State of the World’s Children 2006-2010 and UNSD Millennium Development Goals Database

Stable, that is, (largely) everywhere except Sub-Saharan Africa (a lot of countries aren’t in the Millennium Development Goals Database for Unmet needs for family planning and such, they aren’t represented in this) where the rate stands around 40%, a lot lower than the average, and even lower than that of developed countries.

This is as we inferred, these Sub-Saharan countries, particularly Mali, Niger, and Chad, the same ones that have high rates of child marriage, and child fertility, dominate as countries with a low use of contraceptives and unmet needs. Right here looks to be one of the places where an increased (education, acceptance, and) use of contraceptives would be most useful in preventing this cascading chain, starting with chain marriage, from continuing.

When girls get married, particularly if they have a child to care for as well, they are likely to drop out of school. Even worse, with this lack of contraceptives, their own children may themselves struggle with their education (Melinda Gates) – with an increase in the number of children, so does the difficulty in feeding them all increase. This continues to be represented in our own data (note the correlation between countries with a low secondary school enrollment (which is around when puberty starts, which is around the age that children are married at – though some are as young as 7 (Washington Post) and a high rate of child marriage).

Primary School enrollment ratio (for girls)

UNESCO Primary education (ISCED 1) Net enrolment rate

Secondary School enrollment ratio (for girls)

UNESCO Total Secondary Net enrolment rate

Women 20-24 who were married as children, Primary & Secondary Enrollment rates

UNSD Gender Info 2007 and UNESCO Primary education (ISCED 1) Net enrolment rate, Total Secondary Net enrolment rate

Country Child marriage among women 20-24 Primary enrollment Secondary enrollment
Niger 77% (1998) 56.6% (2011) 7.8% (2008)
Chad 71% (1997) 51.1% (2003) 5.4% (2004)
Bangladesh 65% (1999) no data no data
Guinea 65% (1999) 70.5% (2010) 22.3% (2009)
Mali 65% (2001) 58.8% (2011) 25.4% (2011)
Central African Republic 57% (1994) 60.4% (2010) 7.9% (2009)

The relation is clear (secondary enrollment is also impacted by poverty and economic issues as well, but child marriage does make a difference); being married as a child, dramatically decreases secondary school enrollment.

And, without a proper education, you likely can’t earn the money that you need to escape poverty, which you need to escape child marriage, which you need to escape child births, which you need to escape dropping out of school.

ad infinitum.

These numbers, abstract as they may be, show the magnitude of this problem. One that needs to be addressed, and now.

How do we stop this vicious cycle?

  • The law is what we started this piece with, yet the figures that 10 million girls become child brides every year – 71% of them from countries with a legal age at or above 18 – and that countries like Armenia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan with legal age less than 18 yet have drastically lower child marriage rates, show that the law makes less of an impact than one would have thought (enforcement of the law is another issue)
  • Increased availability of contraceptives gives women the power to plan their own lives, it gives them the power of self-determination. With this, a woman can decide when and how many children she would like to have, a power that will enable her to space her children apart, improving both her own health (Mayo Clinic) and giving her the opportunity to care for her own child, right when they need it the most. Religious hierarchies (like the Catholic Church / Pope) can make this difficult, but to quote Melinda Gates, ‘let the women in Africa decide’ (Melinda Gates talking about contraceptives in Africa)
  • Education empowers people, it allows them to take control of their life, and it can help take them out of poverty (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). Education can raise awareness in communities about these issues (for example, can you imagine someone not being aware that contraceptives exist? Imagine a World… Without Contraception, Imagine a World…Where You Don’t Know Contraception Exists), and awareness changes traditions (Girls not brides). To quote Graça Machel, ‘traditions can change because they are made by people’
  • By decreasing poverty, kids will be able to remain in school for longer and avoid a child marriage (something that, sadly, is sometimes done because the family cannot afford to take care of their daughter, International Center for Reasearch on Women – particularly with the exchange of wealth during a marriage, present in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa).

Child marriage, and its implications of an unfinished education, a worsened health, and the removal of one’s liberty, is an abuse of human rights, abusing those most vulnerable in our society. But, what can *we* do about it?

How can *we* make a difference?

  • Learn more about the issue (MIT’s MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) 14.73x: The Challenges of Global Poverty looks like a great introduction into the economic side of the issue), make up your own mind, and then spread the word
  • Petition your government to provide aid / support for the above steps (for a list of countries that have pledged for providing contraceptives see London Summit on Family Planning pledges – Australia is one of them!)


  • Data was sourced from UN Data and the US Census. I also looked at The World Bank Data but didn’t up using that site.
  • You can download a copy of all the csv and Excel files that I used / edited here (zip folder)
  • Besides using Excel (both VLookup / AverageIfs / SumIfs and scroll-select-copy-and-paste!), I used Python (3.2) to convert the csv files to the JavaScript array that Google Charts wants. You can download the code here
  • Take a look at Gap Minder for a fantastic way to visualize the change in data over time
  • If I have made any [statistical, legal, cultural, or otherwise] mistakes, please point them out, and then I can correct them
  • Besides my (still going…) high-school education which has empowered me to make this informed research, I would like to thank Sebastian Thrun for his Intro to Statistics class on Udacity (which certainly helped!), and Rob Flavell (who also blogs on data visualisation)