Latest modern slavery fight updates -

What if Child Marriage Means Older Teens Making Choices?

  • Published on
    February 28, 2019
  • News Source Image
  • Category:
    Forced Marriage
Hero Banner

New research in Tanzania is adding an important level of nuance to the global movement to end child marriage.

Often the term “child marriage” is incorrectly assumed to mean “forced marriage,” with the terms being used interchangeably. Yet anthropologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara say that this doesn’t capture the complexity of what’s actually happening and how teenagers make decisions about marriage.

Take Action: Join the Fight Against Forced Child Marriage

“That’s a dominant narrative within the international development sector, that ‘child marriage’ happens because daughters are forced to marry at young ages for their parents’ financial benefit and that marrying early is fundamentally harmful to the girl’s wellbeing,” says Susan Schaffnit, a postdoctoral scholar in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s anthropology department.

“But surprisingly little research has explored local peoples’ perceptions of early marriage or directly tested whether parents gain and daughters suffer from marrying under 18 years.”

Futurity reports:

In a pair of papers, lead author Schaffnit and David Lawson, a UCSB assistant professor of anthropology, report on a study of the timing of marriage, bridewealth payments (transferred from the groom’s family to the bride’s family), and women’s wellbeing in rural Tanzania. The papers appear in Nature Human Behaviour and in Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters.

“We find that marrying early brings a higher bridewealth, which may incentivize early marriage of daughters for parents to some extent,” Schaffnit says.

“But marrying at ages 15 to 17 is not obviously detrimental to daughters, with the wellbeing of those marrying early largely indistinguishable from those that marry above 18 years. In fact, marrying early was associated with greater empowerment in household decisions and marriage at any age was viewed as increasing a woman’s social status.”

Most girls and women themselves decided when and whom to marry, the researchers report. “The terms ‘child marriage’ and ‘forced marriage,’” Schaffnit says, “are often used interchangeably by development organizations, but we demonstrate that there are contexts in which young people decide to marry early and may be incentivized to do so by gains in status and respect at home and in the community.”

Notably, Lawson does stress that parental coercion does occur in some cases.

“We’re not claiming that girls are never forced into early marriages,” he says. “This certainly happens in some contexts, including in Tanzania. But in contexts where ‘child marriage’ mainly takes place in late adolescence, and where autonomy in partner choice is clearly apparent, we need to be careful not to falsely vilify parents.

The research findings are based on surveys of nearly 1,000 girls and women 15 to 35 years in rural Mwanza Region, where 35 percent of brides marry before age 18. Only 2 percent married before age 15.

Lawson hopes that future research will distinguish between early marriage in late adolescence and very early marriage.

“Boundaries between childhood and adulthood are flexible, and fixating on an arbitrary 18-year-old threshold means we may miss opportunities to support girls and women regardless of their precise age at marriage,” he added.


Freedom United is interested in hearing from our community and welcomes relevant, informed comments, advice, and insights that advance the conversation around our campaigns and advocacy. We value inclusivity and respect within our community. To be approved, your comments should be civil.

stop icon A few things we do not tolerate: comments that promote discrimination, prejudice, racism, or xenophobia, as well as personal attacks or profanity. We screen submissions in order to create a space where the entire Freedom United community feels safe to express and exchange thoughtful opinions.

Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jim Smith
Jim Smith
5 years ago

In Britain, the minimum age for marriage is 16, so it seems hypocritical to say that it should be higher in other countries. The term “child” can be used to mean different things. There is a call for the voting age in Britain to be lowered to 16. That suggests a 16-year-old is a young adult, not a child.

Elain Le Riche
Elain Le Riche
5 years ago

Good grief! How can marriage at 15 be an informed decision?

Peter K
Peter K
5 years ago

Sure if they want to. But we need to get rid of the farcical situation in many countries where 16-17 year Olds can legally fornicate but if they want to do the right thing and get married, the State prohibits it! Even if the bride’s mother and father and the groom’s mother and father have all given written consent!!

This week

From Ecuador's fields to global supply chains: Freedom United tackles modern slavery

As hundreds of Ecuadorian workers await a verdict in a milestone modern slavery case, Freedom United's Executive Director, Joanna Ewart-James, sat down with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle News to explain modern slavery in supply chains and everyday products. Chances are you've used a forced labor product The Deutsche Welle report follows landmark rulings on cases of exploitation in Ecuador at Furukawa Plantaciones C.A., a Japanese company that

| Thursday June 20, 2024

Read more