International and Domestic Law and Policy on Forced and Child Marriage

Numerous international legal instruments prohibit forced and child marriage, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Although most countries have signed onto these documents, many countries have not taken sufficient steps to implement these treaties. For example, many signatory countries still lack domestic laws specifying 18 as the minimum age to marry.   In the United States, some states have no minimum age to marry (although they typically require court and parental approval), and others make exception to their minimum age if there is a pregnancy involved, which can conflict with states’ statutory rape laws.

In 2005, the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 1468 on forced marriages and child marriages. The resolution defines forced marriage as the “union of two persons at least one of whom has not given their full and free consent to the marriage” (Para. 4), and child marriage as the “union of two persons at least one of whom is under 18 years of age” (Para. 7). It urges states, inter alia, to ratify relevant international treaties, comply with the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation (2002)5 on the protection of women against violence, set the minimum age for marriage at eighteen years, and consider criminalizing acts of forced marriage. 

In 2008, the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women released a legislative model framework in an expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women."  This model code includes provisions outlawing forced and child marriage.  (For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.)

Only a few countries have criminalized forced marriage. In Croatia, Chapter 14 of the criminal code expressly penalizes forced marriages, which includes “criminal acts directed against sexual freedom and sexual morality.”  However, criminalization of this conduct is not universally accepted as the best way to eliminate the practice of forced marriage.  After examining the possible outcomes criminalizing forced marriage, the UK declined to make it a criminal offense due to concerns that victims would not want their families to be punished.

The dearth of laws criminalizing marital rape can make it difficult to prosecute perpetrators of violence in forced marriages, such as in the case of the Czech Republic.  Nevertheless, criminal offenses committed within a forced marriage—such as rape, sexual assault, false imprisonment and kidnapping—are punishable under existing criminal statutes in most countries.

For the first time in history, the act of forced marriage was prosecuted as a crime against humanity under international law. According to the 2007 report by Sigma Huda, in May 2004, the Special Court for Sierra Leone charged six individuals with the act of forced marriage. Forced marriage during the war in Sierra Leoneinvolved not only the acts of rape and sexual slavery, but forcing a woman to do other tasks, such as cook or clean. These “marriages” lasted for years. Many of these bush wives have been unable to return home due to the associated stigma of their marriage, a “Stockholm Syndrome” attachment to their commanders, threatened separation from their children, or a lack of resettlement support.