child marriage
Image caption: Child marriage (marriage involving under 18-year-olds) isn’t necessarily always slavery. But, if the child is young, has no realistic way out, was unable to exercise genuine, informed consent to the marriage, and/or is exploited within marriage, it is slavery. Image credit: Chico Dodi FC, via Shutterstock.

Child marriage and forced marriage

*Alina’s story

At just 15 years old, Alina was married to a man twice her age. She suffered domestic violence for over five years. She had been told by her mother and mother-in-law that such abuse was ‘normal’, and that it was her duty to bear it.

Alina did not have control over her life, suffered long-term abuse in her marriage, and was not realistically able to leave her husband. She was living in slavery.

*name changed to protect identity

Marriage involving children under 18 years old is still an accepted practice in many societies. Although boys can be affected by the practice, it is mostly girls who suffer slavery as a consequence of child marriage. 

Not every marriage involving under-18s will amount to slavery, especially those between couples aged 16 to 18. But in many cases, child marriage causes serious harm to children’s physical and psychological health. Increasingly, countries understand the need to protect children from forced marriage. 

The 2022 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery show that there has been a significant rise in people living in forced marriages since 2016 – this increase of 6.6 million people includes a significant proportion of children. Overall, 41% of people forced to marry are children, and, while it very rare for children under the age of 10 to be forced into marriage, the Estimates included reports of children aged 9 who had been forced into marriage.   

When is child marriage considered slavery? 

Child marriage can be referred to as slavery if one or more of the following elements are present: 

  • If the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent to enter the marriage
  • If the child is subjected to control and a sense of ‘ownership’ in the marriage itself – particularly through abuse and threats – and is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores within the marital home or labour outside it, and/or engage in non-consensual sexual relations
  • If the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage, leading potentially leading to a lifetime of slavery

Children are clearly in a weaker position to give free, full and informed consent to marriage than adults, even if they appear to ‘agree’ or don’t express refusal. 

Many children have little or no control over their movements or person within marriage, including over sexual relations. Girls, in particular, are commonly controlled through violence, threats and humiliation, as well as experiencing isolation and loneliness. 

Children may not realistically be able to leave their marriage. For example, they may not be able to support themselves financially or may fear repercussions from in-laws and the wider community, as well as their own families. 

Girls who leave their marriages without support are often vulnerable to other forms of slavery and exploitation. 

Learn more about our work on child slavery