IPPF senior adviser on adolescents and young people Doortje Braeken says advocates working to eradicate early marriage have failed to address a critical issue: setting a minimum legal age for consent to sex.  “Setting a globally agreed legal age of marriage,” asserts Braeken, “only deals with half the issue”:

[S]omething obvious is missing in all our sincere and potentially effective efforts towards ending child marriage … we have an unaddressed issue which is that of the age of consent: the age when you are legally allowed to have sex. As countries begin to amend the marriageable age, many amend the age of consent so the two align, if that is not already the case. Sex is regarded as something that can only start to happen when a marriage certificate is in place. This has two consequences: those who have sex before marriage are stigmatised, criminalised and rejected. And since sex before marriage is not supposed to happen, those who have sex before marriage often have no access to sexual health services because of laws, the attitudes of service providers, or because they are too afraid to go there. The question of age of consent has to be built into any recommendations aimed at banishing the abuses of early marriage … it should be right at the heart of any programme or policy which has anything to do with changing attitudes and actions which are damaging to young people’s sexual wellbeing, not to mention their economic, educational and social welfare. Which is what early or forced marriage is.

Addressing sex only in the context of marriage, argues Braeken, can have troubling consequences for women and girls; for example, whereas a married girl of 16 can access reproductive health advice and services, an unmarried 18-year-old woman is barred from doing so.  But, failing to align laws governing the minimum age for consent to sex and marriage can have troubling consequences, too, according to GJI forced marriage initiative director, Julia Alanen:

Inconsistent [U.S.] state laws governing consent to adolescent sex and marriage can yield absurd and indefensible results, leaving girls vulnerable to exploitation.  The vast majority of U.S. states permit a minor to marry, with parental consent, upon reaching age sixteen, and much younger in certain states, particularly in the event that a girl becomes pregnant.  A few states permit minors as young as age twelve or thirteen to marry with the permission of a parent or guardian … The minimum legal ages for consent to sex and marriage do not necessarily align within a given state.  For example, while a state’s sex-offense law may deem that a fifteen-year-old girl lacks, per se, the requisite maturity to lawfully consent to engage in sexual acts with a seventeen-year-old boy without triggering statutory rape charges (regardless of whether her parents consent), that very same state’s marriage law may simultaneously deem her sufficiently mature to lawfully consent to marry a fifty-year-old man (with her parents’ consent) and then proceed to [lawfully] consummate the marriage … While courts have cited preventing forced marriage as a valid basis for criminalizing certain adolescent sexual activity, they have yet to address preventing adolescent sexual activity as a valid basis for proscribing [early] marriage … Adolescent sex that is defined for compelling public policy reasons as nonconsensual per se, based on minors’ intrinsic lack of capacity to give free and informed consent, cannot reasonably be rendered consensual solely by virtue of a marriage ceremony.

In the west, just as in countries where child marriage is still a mainstream practice, deeply held traditional social mores concerning premarital versus marital sex can pose very real access barriers for unwed adolescent girls in need of critical reproductive health information and services.  Braeken underscores the importance of educating young people worldwide about sexuality and fundamental human rights:

[W]e must account for comprehensive sexuality education. Without education young people aren’t aware of their rights, and if they aren’t aware of their rights, they aren’t aware of how established custom, tradition and law may infringe those rights. Without education, they are unaware of the proper respect due to them as individuals.

Another oft-neglected aspect of the advocacy movement to eradicate early marriage is the importance of raising awareness among men and boys about the harmful consequences of child marriage and early pregnancy.  “[I]f we want to promote an agenda of respect and rights which will bring an end to child marriage,” warns Braeken, “possibly the people we need to focus on just as much as young girls … are young boys.”

READ MORE: Day of the Girl: why we must debate the age of consent, By Doortje Braeken, The Guardian (October 11, 2012).  J. Alanen, Shattering the Silence Surrounding Forced and Early Marriage in the United States, Children’s Legal Rights Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2012).