A child marriage is any legal or customary union between two people where at least one of the parties is below the age of 18. A child marriage is interpreted by the CEDAW and CRC Committees as a form of forced marriage, since children – given their age – inherently lack the ability to give their full, free and informed consent to their marriage or its timing.
According to the human rights standards enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), child marriage is a form of harmful practice. Prohibiting marriage among those under the age of 18 is a guarantee that the responsibilities which marriage entails are not assigned to or imposed on children prematurely and without their consent. As a matter of respecting the child’s evolving capacity and autonomy in making decisions that affect her or his life, the CEDAW and CRC Committees agreed that in exceptional circumstances the marriage of a mature, capable child who is at least 16 years old may be allowed, provided that such a decision is made by a judge, based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law and on the evidence of that child’s maturity, without deference to culture and/or tradition.
Child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage are all interrelated but distinct terms. However, they have been combined in every way possible and are used interchangeably without any explicit definitions or at least clarification as to the breadth of the ambiguity surrounding each label. The CEDAW and CRC Committees agreed to use the term ‘child and/or forced marriage’.
See also: forced marriage; early marriage
CEDAW and CRC Committees (2014). Joint General Recommendation/General Comment No 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and No 18 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Harmful Practices. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CEDAW/Pages/Recommendations.aspx