Over 700 million women currently living got married while they were just children, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) (pdf). That number is set to rise to nearly 1 billion by 2030, if current trends continue.
Child marriage, a practice that hurts young women’s health, education and long term ability to earn an income, is considered a human rights violation. Yet laws in over 116 countries allow people under the age of 18 to wed, according to a report by Pew Research.
Pew Research analyzed data from the UN and US State Department on 198 nations and territories and found that 153 require people to be legal adults aged 18, but exceptions can be made. If parental consent is given, many countries allow marriage before 18.
While the laws vary from state to state in America, in most states the legal age for marriage without parental consent is 18, while it is 16 with permission from parents. In many other countries, such as Angola, Uruguay, Belarus, Belize, Iraq, Jamaica and Colombia, parental consent means that children under the age of 18 can be married.
Many countries make a legal exemption for people belonging to a specific religion. For instance, the minimum age for marriage without permission is 21 in the Philippines. But the law makes an exception for Muslims–Muslim girls can be married at puberty, and Muslim boys at 15.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the legal age for civil and Christian marriage is 18 for men and women. But the law allows Muslim men to marry at 16 and Muslim women at 12, and Hindu men to marry at 18 and Hindu women at 14.
In some cases the law requires only one person in the marriage to be an adult. In Australia for instance, if one person is 18 or older, with judicial approval they can marry someone as young as 16.
In 37 countries, the minimum age for women is less than the minimum age requirement for men. In Sudan for instance, boys are allowed to marry at 15, while girls can marry at 10 by law. In India and Bangladesh, the minimum age for men is 21, while women can be married at 18.
Six countries–South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Somalia and Yemen–have no legal restrictions on a minimum age for marriage. However, in many countries, the law doesn’t affect actual practice–and child marriage continues despite regulations.
The refugee crisis has made child marriage a more pressing issue as girls are being pressed to marry in refugee camps rather than continue their educations. Saba and her mother Izdihar, Syrian refugees living in a refugee camp in Jordan, spend their days advocating against child marriage, according to a report by the UNFPA. They say that while child marriage existed in Syria before the war, the practice was fairly uncommon. In Syria the legal age for marriage is 18 for boys and 17 for girls, but boys and girls can marry at 15 with the consent of their fathers and a judge.
As Syrian families flee their homes, incidents of child marriage have increased dramatically. “If an entire family lives in one caravan–the mother, the father and several children–then it is easier to give one child to another family as a bride,” Izdihar said.