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What age can a girl marry?

The age at which a girl can legally marry varies significantly across different countries and jurisdictions. There are a variety of factors that influence the minimum marriage age, including cultural practices, social norms, religious beliefs, and laws and policies. Examining marriage age laws and requirements around the world provides insight into this complex issue.

Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, remains a widespread practice globally despite international agreements discouraging the practice. According to UNICEF, 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year. Child marriage disproportionately impacts girls, especially in the developing world. As of 2020, over 650 million women alive today were married as children.

There are a number of risks associated with child marriage. It often means an end to girls’ education and opportunities for employment and economic independence. Child brides may also experience a range of health issues from early pregnancy and childbirth before their bodies are fully matured, as well as increased risk of intimate partner violence. Hence, many advocates argue that the minimum age of marriage should be 18 to protect girls’ safety and well-being.

However, others argue that setting 18 as the universal minimum age limit fails to take into account the variance in cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs about marriage. Some groups believe that marriage at younger ages can provide security for girls in unstable environments. There are also concerns that blanket minimum age laws could drive child marriages underground and make them harder to regulate and track.

This article will provide an overview of marriage age requirements and laws around the world. It will examine the legal minimum age for girls to marry in various countries, exceptions that allow younger marriage, and trends and debates related to establishing age limits.

Minimum Marriage Age Laws by Country

Most countries have established a legal minimum marriage age, yet the age limits set vary considerably. Below is an overview of marriage age requirements in select countries:


  • Nigeria – 18 years old
  • South Africa – 18 years old, or 15 years old with parental consent
  • Kenya – 18 years old
  • Egypt – 18 years old
  • Ethiopia – 18 years old


  • China – 22 years old for men, 20 years old for women
  • India – 18 years old for women, 21 years old for men
  • Indonesia – 19 years old for men, 16 years old for women
  • Philippines – 18 years old
  • Afghanistan – 16 years old for women (15 with father’s consent)


  • United Kingdom – 16 years old with parental consent, otherwise 18
  • France – 18 years old
  • Spain – 16 years old
  • Germany – 18 years old
  • Italy – 18 years old


  • United States – Varies by state, most commonly 18 years old
  • Canada – 16 to 19 years old depending on province/territory
  • Mexico – 18 years old
  • Brazil – 18 years old
  • Argentina – 18 years old


  • Australia – 18 years old, or 16 with court approval
  • New Zealand – 16 years old with parental consent, otherwise 18

This table summarizes the minimum marriage age requirements for girls in select countries around the world:

Country Minimum Marriage Age for Girls
Nigeria 18
India 18
United States Varies by state, typically 18
Mexico 18
France 18
China 20
Australia 18, or 16 with court approval
Indonesia 16
Afghanistan 16, or 15 with father’s consent

This data shows that while most countries have set 18 as the minimum marriage age, there is variation across nations. Factors like culture, religion, and economic development appear to influence where age thresholds are set.

Exceptions to Minimum Marriage Age

While most countries establish a legal minimum age for marriage, many also allow exceptions under certain circumstances. Common exceptions include:

  • Parental consent – Marriage below the minimum age is allowed with consent of parents or legal guardians
  • Court approval – A judge can authorize a marriage where one or both spouses are below the minimum age
  • Traditional/customary marriages – In some countries, traditional or religious marriages may be permitted before the civil minimum age
  • Early pregnancy – A lower minimum age or exception may apply if the girl is pregnant
  • Special circumstances – Some countries give discretion to provide exceptions for things like a pregnancy resulting from rape

These exceptions are intended to provide some flexibility in the law. However, many argue that allowing exceptions erodes minimum age protections for girls. Loopholes such as parental consent have been shown to enable forced child marriages promoted by parents against the girl’s wishes.

Trends and Debates Around Minimum Marriage Age

Setting and enforcing a minimum legal age for marriage is a complex issue that continues to be debated globally. Some of the major trends and arguments include:

Push to Raise Marriage Age to 18

Many countries have recently raised the legal minimum age to 18, including Chile, Scotland, several Canadian provinces, and some states in the U.S. Advocates argue that 18 aligns marriage age with adulthood and improves protections.

Criticism of “One Size Fits All” Approach

Some groups caution against a universal marriage age of 18, pointing to cultural differences in conceptualizing adulthood. They argue flexibility is needed to accommodate various social norms.

Concerns About Driving Child Marriage Underground

If laws are too restrictive, there are concerns it could incentivize people to conduct marriages in secret, avoiding regulation and enforcement. Gradual change may be required.

Importance of Education and Empowerment

Legal change alone may be insufficient without broader efforts to educate communities and empower girls socioeconomically. Holistic measures are needed beyond just laws.

Challenge of Enforcing Minimum Age Laws

Effective enforcement poses difficulties, especially in rural traditional communities. Even with legal prohibitions, changing social norms around early marriage is slow.

This table summarizes some of the major perspectives in the debate around minimum marriage age laws:

Position Argument
Raise minimum age to 18 Aligns with international children’s rights standards, improves protections
Flexibility needed A universal age limit of 18 fails to accommodate cultural differences
Gradual change required Too restrictive laws could drive child marriages underground
Holistic measures needed Legal change alone is insufficient without broader social progress
Enforcement difficulties Changing social norms around child marriage is challenging

Impact of Minimum Age Laws

What impact do minimum age laws have on child marriage rates? The evidence is mixed:

  • In some countries, setting 18 as the minimum marriage age has correlated with declines in child marriage. For example, rates dropped substantially in Morocco following legal reform.
  • However, other places have seen little change despite new laws. For instance, Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates globally despite banning marriage under 18.
  • Minimum age laws appear most effective when combined with efforts to enhance girls’ access to education and employment, promote gender equitable norms, and enforce the law.
  • Cultural attitudes and social norms may evolve slowly even with new legislation. Laws signalling changed norms may be most effective.
  • Strict laws with severe penalties can risk driving child marriages underground and decreasing reporting.

Overall, the evidence indicates that minimum age laws must be part of a broader strategy including social mobilization, education, and economic empowerment initiatives in order to end child marriage practices.


The appropriate legal minimum age for girls to marry is widely debated globally. Most countries have established age 18 as the threshold aligned with international children’s rights standards. However, exceptions and flexibility are often allowed to accommodate cultural practices and traditions. There are also concerns that a universal benchmark fails to consider social norms in different contexts.

Minimum age laws appear most effective at delaying child marriage when combined with efforts to educate girls, promote gender equity, and enforce the law. Just establishing a legal limit without broader social progress may be insufficient to change longstanding traditional attitudes and practices. Care is needed to bring local communities on board and avoid marginalizing girls through underground unregulated marriages.

Finding the right approach requires balancing human rights standards with cultural sensitivities. While setting a legal marriage age limit is an important protection measure for girls, it must be part of a comprehensive strategy engaging traditional and religious leaders, educating parents, and empowering girls economically and socially. With thoughtful implementation and coordinated efforts, minimum age laws can provide protection for girls worldwide.