Legal ages of marriage across Africa: Even when it's 18, they are married off at 12!

Legal ages vary, but they don't mean much...especially in conflict and poverty

Sitting in the open-air jail outside a courthouse in Nanyuki, Kenya, sat a group of young girls and their mothers. A couple of them were pregnant. They were young girls from Samburu in Northern Kenya. When asked, one of them confessed she was just twelve years old and the reason they were in the jail is because the legal age of marriage in Kenya is 18.

The legal age of marriage in Africa varies widely across the continent, from between 15 and 21. Some countries have adopted a minimum legal age, usually 18 years old, though they are often not adhered to. In Kenya for example, despite laws that prohibit child marriages, according to Plan International 43% of girls were married before they turned 18. The fact that there are estimates that show that child brides in Africa could rise to 15 million by 2030, demonstrates further how state laws are sidelined.

Some international organisations and developed societies consider the marriage by a person (usually a girl) below the age of 18 as a child marriage. However for many African countries this is not the case, for example in Tanzania a girl is considered an adult at 15 years old. 

The Ford Foundation developed an infographic that shows Child Marriage including the various legal ages of marriage.  In the case of Africa we see that the youngest legal age for marriage for girls, at 15 years of age, is in Cameroon, Niger, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Tanzania.

Both Niger and Mali are predominantly Muslim countries with most of their population dedicated to Islam. Islamic marriage practice does not adhere to the widely more accepted age of 18 that the UN recommends. In contrast, some Islamic marriage practices have permitted the marriage of girls as young as 10 years old. This is because Sharia law is based in part on the life and practices of the Prophet Mohammed, who married Aisha, his third wife, and consummated the marriage before she reached the age of 10.

Countries like Nigeria have amended their laws to accommodate the varying belief systems. Christianity and Islam are practiced by roughly 50%-50% of its population respectively, and the country continues British colonial era laws, where child marriages are forbidden for its Christians and allowed for its Muslims. In northern states, predominantly Muslim, over 50% of the girls marry before the age of 15.

Whilst some may condemn these countries for setting the legal age so low, it becomes apparent in the case of many other African countries that the legal age for marriage is simply cloaking the fact that marriages continue to occur under the legal age or the law is circumvented somehow. For example, in Mauritania the legal age of marriage is 18 for both men and women, however, judges can use their discretionary powers to marry minors. Also in Tanzania, though the law dictates that a girl of 15 years and above is considered an adult, the Penal Code provides that persons of “African or Asiatic descent” may marry or permit marriage of a girl under 12 in accordance with their custom or religion if marriage is not intended to be consummated before she is 12.

It is clear in these cases that there are circumstances that trump the rights of the girl child. The legal age of marriage is redundant and it becomes about tradition, poverty, religion and war.

Poverty is considered to be one of the main causes of child marriage in Africa. The economic survival of the family means that daughters are married off so there is one less mouth to feed, or to obtain a dowry. Poverty is also closely linked to education and strong correlations between education and child marriage are found. Educated girls are less likely to marry young, join the labour force, and therefore rely less on the need to marry as a social safety net. Tradition also plays a part in places, such as Ethiopia - though the legal age of marriage is 18 years, 49% of girls under 18 are married.

Sierra Leone has a legal age of marriage that is set at 21 years old yet 47% of girls under the age of 18 are married, whilst in Cote d’Ivoire the legal age of marriage is 18 but 35% of girls under 18 are married. What these countries reflect is the notion that insecurity can propagate child marriages. Both countries have suffered from recent protracted wars and in situations of conflict parents will marry off their daughters for fear of them being kidnapped and raped – as a method of protecting them. According to the Human Rights Watch, conflict also decreases the age of marriage and that, because of the limited pool of potential husbands, families seek to make choices for their daughters that might not be acceptable in more normal times.

Below is data accumulated from the Ford Foundation’s 2011 Annual Report that covers Youth Sexuality and Rights. Here we find the legal age of marriage and their variations across the continent: 


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