What is it about?

'Child marriage' refers to any marriage under 18 years. It most commonly affects girls, is most prevalent in relatively low-income nations, and has been argued to have negative consequences for girls and women. Global health initiatives seeking to abolish child marriage increasingly target the general public as potential donors and agents of change. In doing so, they use attention-grabbing media campaigns which emphasize extreme scenarios of very young girls forcibly married to much older men and frame the legality of marriage under 18 years as international human rights abuse. In contrast, research among communities were early marriage is common indicates that most 'child marriages' occur in late adolescence (16 -17 years), often involve some degree of female autonomy and agency (such as in cases where girls elope to marry men against parental wishes), and marriage under 18 years is legal in many high-income countries that campaign to change the legal age at marriage abroad. Against this background, the researchers set out to determine the extent to which the American public hold misconceptions about child marriage, using an anonymous internet survey. The results reveal widespread public misunderstanding. Most strikingly, the majority of participants believed that the cut-off for child marriage is younger than the legal threshold of 18 years, and nearly three-quarters incorrectly believed that most child marriages occur at 15 years or below, despite the fact that child marriage primarily takes place in later adolescence worldwide. The large majority of participants also incorrectly believed that child marriage is illegal throughout the majority of the USA (it was illegal in only 2 states at the time of data collection), and survey respondents overestimated the prevalence of child marriage abroad and at home.

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Why is it important?

This study suggests that the American public are misinformed about the definition, legality, prevalence and global distribution of child marriage. Terminology may be partially to blame for public misunderstanding. The term 'child' generally refers to the period before puberty, after which children become adolescents or teenagers, and then adults. As such, the general public operate under the false assumption that 'child marriage' refers to the marriage of especially young, or pre-pubescent girls. More generally, rather than simply implying ignorance, the direction of misconceptions indicates important biases in how the topic is presented to the public via news media and global health initiatives that routinely emphasize extreme scenarios of very young brides coerced into marriage. In reality, most child marriages take place in late adolescence and brides may demonstrate agency and autonomy in early transitions to marriage. Widespread misconceptions that child marriage is illegal across the United States, and most prevalent in Muslim-majority world regions also imply important cultural biases influence public opinion. Together these results highlight important popular misconceptions of child marriage that may ultimately undermine global health goals and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Organizations seeking to empower women by reducing child marriage should be cautious of these misunderstandings, and wary of the potential for their own activities to seed misinformation. The study advocates that the term child marriage is replaced with terminology which better synchronizes public understanding with reality. ‘Adolescent’, ‘early’ or ‘minor marriage’ are solid alternatives, with the latter alluding to the legal entity of the child upon which the age threshold is premised.


As the global campaign to abolish child marriage continues to grow, it is important that we also reflect on its potential to seed misinformation and foster harmful stereotypes. Our results imply that most Americans operate under a false impression of moral superiority, such as incorrectly assuming marriage under 18 years is illegal at home, but legal in lower-income countries.

David Lawson
University of California Santa Barbara

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This page is a summary of: What does the American public know about child marriage?, PLoS ONE, September 2020, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0238346.
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