Child marriage just became illegal in England but still happens in Canada

Ameko Eks Mass Carroll
Story by Ameko Eks Mass Carroll and CBC Kids News • Published 2023-03-08 12:23

Canada pushes against it abroad, but it happens at home

Eye on Injustice: Every month, CBC Kids News contributor Ameko Eks Mass Carroll explores a topic related to social justice. What is social justice? It’s the idea that everyone deserves fair and equal treatment, regardless of who they are or where they come from. 

I was shocked to learn that as a 17-year-old in Canada, I can get married.

All I need is a parent or guardian’s consent.

Yup, I can get married, even though I can’t vote, legally own property, rent a car or have unsecured credit cards.

I can’t even sign my own legal documents, which means I can’t apply for a divorce on my own if I want to end my marriage.

On Feb. 27, England and Wales implemented a law to ban marriage for those under the age of 18, with no exceptions.

That’s because the practice is widely seen as a violation of children’s rights.

The Canadian government agrees that it causes children harm.

In fact, Canada has joined other United Nations (UN) countries in asking that child marriage be banned around the world by 2030.

So why can a kid like me still get married in Canada?

Critics say it doesn’t make sense that Canada fights child marriage overseas, while leaving kids in Canada vulnerable.

Every year around the world, at least 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. This is 28 girls every minute. One in every five girls is married, or in union, before reaching age 18. Source: United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner

What is child marriage?

The UN recognizes child marriage as any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.

The UN says that’s a human rights violation.

In some countries, the minimum age for girls to get married is younger than boys.

Indian girls dressed in sarees. Two have their faces covered.

A girl in India on her wedding day, right, standing with family members. Child marriage happens all over the world and affects millions, especially girls. (Image credit: Prakash Hatvalne/The Associated Press)

How common is child marriage in Canada?

While it’s common in other parts of the world, child marriage isn’t as common in Canada — but it still sometimes happens.

Alissa Koski, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, published a report in 2021 based on Canadian data.

She found that between 2000 and 2018, about 3,700 children in Canada had been legally married.

“It's obviously hypocritical to be advocating for an end to child marriage elsewhere in the world while we ourselves are not willing to do it,” Koski told me in an interview.

Why does child marriage happen?

The Government of Canada says child marriage happens in many places around the world for a number of reasons, including gender inequality, poverty and tradition.

Girls Not Brides is a group of organizations trying to end child marriage around the world.

According to their website, when poverty increases due to climate disasters, disease outbreaks or conflict, families might see child marriage as a way to protect their children and give them financial security with a spouse to support them.

It also means one less mouth to feed.

While Koski’s research doesn’t explain why it happens in Canada, she said the reasons it happens here are similar to elsewhere in the world.

“Gender inequality exists here in Canada, just as it does anywhere else,” Koski said.

Koski’s research found that 85 per cent of child marriages in Canada involved girls.

According to her research, Alberta and Manitoba issued the most marriage certificates to 16 and 17-year-olds based on population percentages from 2000 to 2018.

A group of women in wedding gowns at a protest

Demonstrators, including survivors of child marriage, gather in Boston, Massachusetts, in September 2021 to call for an end to child marriages in that state. (Image credit: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

An age difference is common

If you’re thinking these are probably just teenagers in love, that’s not likely the case, said Koski.

That’s because child marriages in which both spouses are teens are rare in Canada.

“In 36 per cent of child marriages, girls under the age of 18 married men who were at least five years older than they were,” Koski said.

Her research indicates that the practice is not restricted to any one religion or immigrant group.

What are the negative consequences?

Child marriage can lead to dropping out of school, fewer future job opportunities, domestic violence, increased risk of HIV, early pregnancies and increased likelihood for their future family to live in poverty. Souce: Government of Canada

Samra Zafar is a child marriage survivor who lives in Toronto, Ontario.

About 25 years ago, Zafar was brought to Canada as a child bride from Pakistan and forced into marriage when she was 17.

Her husband was 28.

 Left: A teen in a fancy saree with henna on her hands. Right: The same woman 20 years later, smiling.

Samra Zafar, on her wedding day, left, when she was 17. Today she speaks publicly about her experience. (Images submitted by Samra Zafar)

Zafar said she was told her dreams weren’t valid because of her gender.

“[I was] confined to a very, very tight and narrow view about what being a woman and being a girl is,” she told me in an interview.

“It was very dehumanizing. It was very debilitating, traumatic.”

The relationship lasted 10 years and involved physical abuse. She eventually managed to escape the marriage with her two children and pursued her education. Today she’s studying to become a doctor.

What is being done about it?

Child marriages both in Canada and worldwide have been dropping in the last 20 years.

Some countries have raised the legal marriage age to 18, with England and Wales being the most recent.

Recently, the government in the Assam region of India has been arresting people involved in child marriages, including husbands and those who perform the ceremonies.

Canada has committed millions of dollars to help end child marriage abroad.

In November 2022, Canada and Zambia led a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly to end child, early and forced marriage (CEFM).

“CEFM is a violation of human rights and prevents girls and women from reaching their full potential,” said a news release from Global Affairs Canada at the time.

Koski said that Canada would be a lot more credible if it changed its own laws before pushing other countries to do so.

 A tweet from Development Canada in March 2018: In addition to our multilateral funding, Canada has invested over $90 million in targeted programming to prevent child, early and forced marriage and support women and girls whose lives are affected by this practice. Last year, Canada proudly led resolutions aimed at ending child, early and forced marriage. With a photo of a young girl looking sad.

What is Canada doing about child marriage at home?

No one in the federal government answered CBC Kids News's questions about why it advocates against child marriage abroad yet allows it at home.

We reached out to several federal ministers, including the Prime Minister’s Office, to clarify whether Canada would raise the legal marriage age to align with international commitments.

Only the Justice Department provided a response.

A spokesperson said that when Canada raised the minimum marriage age to 16 in 2015, provinces and territories were also asked to amend their marriage laws so that court approval would be required before a child aged 16 or 17 could marry.

Only Quebec requires court approval, the Justice Department said.

Zafar said that court approval is meaningless because children are not in a position to stand up to their parents in front of a judge if they are being told to get married, recalling her own experience.

“If she says no, her entire family and community will reject her and she’ll be pushed out on the streets or worse,” Zafar said.

What kids can do

Koski and Zafar had the following advice for kids:


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TOP IMAGE: A woman holds a poster in front of her face during a protest in Nigeria in 2013 to remind lawmakers that child marriage is a violation of children's rights. (Image credit: Sunday Alamba/The Associated Press, graphic design by Tara Paquette/CBC)

About the Contributor

Ameko Eks Mass Carroll
Ameko Eks Mass Carroll
CBC Kids News Contributor
Ameko Eks Mass Carroll is a Grade 12 student and nature enthusiast from Northern British Columbia who’s passionate about animals, music, politics and fishing. Ameko is genderfluid (he/him/his, but is not insulted by any pronoun). Ameko made Canadian history as the first Canadian actor submitted to both male and female categories of Canadian award shows (The Leo Awards and The Joey Awards) for the film Limina. He won a special achievement award at the Joeys for his bravery in fighting for inclusivity and diversity.

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