Child Brides and Mail Order Brides

This chapter introduces the phenomenon of child marriage and mail order brides and explains how these practices threaten and undermine the human rights of the people involved. Pay attention to why child marriages are common in some places, and how we might begin to work more effectively to prevent them.


Arranged marriages are usually a cultural practice in which families will choose spouses for their children. Child marriage is a form of arranged marriage for children under the age of 18, and puts young girls at risk for domestic abuse, pregnancy/child birth complications, and HIV. Mail-order brides are also a form of arranged marriage where a spouse is bought on the internet through a broker, generally by a wealthier foreign man. These forms of arranged marriages are also forms of human trafficking and violate the rights of women and children. This chapter will explore the injustices and exploitation within these forms of matrimony.

Key Words: Child Bride, Child Marriage, Arranged Marriage


Child Bride: A child under the age of 18 who is married, or is to be married, to an older man; generally child brides’ marriages are arranged by their parents for the girls’ financial safety or to take the financial burden off the family

Child Marriage: Any marriage where at least one of the people to be married is under the age of 18

Arranged Marriage: A marriage in which the family, usually parents, of each of the spouses decide and agree upon the marriage

Mail Order Bride: A woman ordered over the internet through a broker for a fee to be married to a man in a foreign country

Child Brides

Child brides are girls married before the age of 18, and a child marriage is a marriage in which one or both of the people to be married are under the age of 18. Some child marriages are formally arranged by family members in a cultural context, and others may be more informal (Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations, 2013). Child brides are mostly girls who often have to marry much older men. Many brides are under the age of 15 (Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations, 2013). The practices of child brides and child marriages are a global issue, with an estimated 12-18 million girls being married before the age of 18 every year (Girls Not Brides, 2019; Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations, 2013).

One of the reasons why child brides are so prevalent is because, despite 88% of countries worldwide having laws that forbid marriage before the age of 18, exceptions can be made if the parents of the child consent to the marriage (World Policy Analysis Center, 2015). Twenty-seven percent of the countries that do have laws that require parental consent also have legal loopholes where parents can consent for girls two to four years earlier than for boys (World Policy Analysis Center, 2015). (See Figure A. Map that illustrates the number of countries with lax laws about 15 year olds getting married.)

Two maps: countries that allow 15-year-old girls to marry in certain circumstances, and parental consent for girls vs. boys

Figure A: World map on rules for child marriage from the World Policy Analysis Center

Marrying children is a worldwide problem crossing cultural, regional, and religious lines. Though it is more common in developing countries in the Southeast region of Asia and Africa, it still happens in developed countries like the United States (Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations, 2013; United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 2018). Globally, 21% of girls are married off before the age of 18, which is tens of thousands of girls every single day, and that number doubles to 40% in developing countries with 12% of those girls being under the age of 15 (UNICEF, 2018; United Nations Population Fund, 2018).

Areas with high poverty levels and lax (if any) laws surrounding child marriage typically produce more child brides, along with areas where young girls marrying older men is a cultural norm (International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), n.d.; Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations, 2013). Due to gender inequality in many regions of the world, girls are not considered wage-earners, but instead a drain on family funds. Therefore, especially in regions with unstable political climates and where war and conflict are prominent, families will marry off their daughters to ensure that she is taken care of financially by her husband instead of them (Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations Population Fund, 2018).

Again, despite being more common in developing countries, child brides are prevalent in the developed world as well. In the United States, over 200,000 children were married between 2000 and 2015, with 86% of them being married to adults (Tahirih Justice Center, 2017). In many cases, the girl to be married was pregnant, the soon-to-be husband was decades older, and the girl was marrying her rapist in a case of statutory rape (Tahirih Justice Center, 2017). If current worldwide trends continue uninterrupted, more than 140 million girls will become child brides in the next decade alone (International Women’s Health Coalition, n.d.).

Reasons for Child Marriages

The context for child marriage varies across cultures and regions. In some situations, especially in the United States, child brides are married in a “shotgun” wedding style, like in the statutory rape cases mentioned above. In poverty and war-stricken countries, parents may marry off their children for her financial security or protection, or because they cannot afford to care for her (United Nations, 2013). One mother reported knowing it was wrong to marry off her daughter but believed she would be safer and more respected when married than not, given the state of their community and the fact her daughter could not attend school (Selby & Singer, 2018).

There are also some parents who believe that marrying off their children will protect them from sexual violence, because they will be protected by their partners. This is not always the case, however, given that sexual violence is often exacerbated by child marriage as the children are physically underdeveloped and vulnerable (United Nations Population Fund, 2018; United Nations, 2013). In some cultures, the value of a girl’s dowry to be paid goes up as she ages because her childbearing years are decreasing, therefore family members will try to marry her off younger (Selby & Singer, 2018; United Nations Population Fund, 2018).

The Dangers of Child Marriages

Girls who are married young are at risk of sexual violence, physical abuse, HIV, and pregnancy complications (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT), 2015; ICRW, n.d.; International Women’s Health Coalition, n.d.; United Nations, 2013; United Nations Population Fund, 2018). Some girls are forced to make themselves sexually available not only to their husbands but also other male family members at any time (ECPAT, 2015). Girls who resist advances from their husbands are at a high risk of sexual violence and verbal or physical abuse from their husbands who may force them into submission (ECPAT, 2015). Moreover, as a result of their lack of physical maturity, child brides are at a high risk for pregnancy complications like obstetric fistula and early or still births, which can sometimes result in death (United Nations Population Fund, 2013).

Because of some religious and cultural beliefs, there is a lot of pressure on girls to prove their fertility. Therefore, despite pregnancy complications, girls may be pressured or forced to have frequent or close pregnancies—they have little control over their family planning (ECPAT, 2015; United Nations Population Fund, 2013). Finally, when girls are married young and take on wife and mother roles, they no longer have access to education and are put in a place where systems of inequality, poverty, and low levels of education are perpetuated with their female children (ECPAT, 2015; United Nations, 2013; United Nations Population Fund, 2013, 2018; Selby & Singer, 2018).

Photo of 32 year-old Mohammad Hasamur Rahman with his new bride, 15-year-old Nasoin Akhter, in Manikganj, Bangladesh

Thirty-two-year-old Mohammad Hasamur Rahman with his new bride, 15-year-old Nasoin Akhter, in Manikganj, Bangladesh. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Mail Order Brides

A quick google search of “mail order bride” will pull up dozens of websites where a person can find a woman to marry from a foreign country for a fee. The idea of mail order brides has even become mainstream and romanticized through shows like TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé. A mail order bride is a woman “ordered” for marriage by a usually more affluent man. The man pays a broker a fee for the match, and then pays for the travel expenses for the woman to come to him to be married. The brides (or occasionally husbands) are often leaving financially unstable families and/or politically unstable countries in search of a more stable life, which is expected to be found with the husband (Jackson, 2002; Jones, 2011).

As the new spouse usually pays for the travel arrangements for the incoming bride or husband, the bride is often financially reliant on the new husband, and sometimes stuck in a relationship that is not what they expected in a country they do not know the language or customs, and where they do not have the money to return to their home country (Tyldum, 2013). Brides are primarily ordered by men in the U.S., Australia, and Western Europe, and also in areas of Asia like Taiwan, Korea, and Japan–areas where affluent men can be found (Tyldum, 2013; Yakushko & Rajan, 2017).

The practice of mail order brides is centuries old, but is more prevalent in the modern day because of the ease of access through the internet (Jones, 2011; Minervini & McAndrew, 2005; Yakushko & Rajan, 2017). In some cases, brides and grooms are genuinely looking for life partners on their own. Yakushko and Rajan (2017) highlight the existence of self-described mail order brides who are older and educated and sought out foreign spouses because cultural norms deemed them undesirable. One study found that women were choosing to date men internationally because they did not like the attitudes toward women from men in their own cultures and believed the values and attitudes toward women from American men would be different (Minervini & McAndrew, 2005).

Ironically, the men interested in purchasing brides are often looking for women who embody the exact stereotypes and attitudes the women are trying to escape (Minervini & McAndrew, 2005; Starr & Adams, 2016). Men are drawn to mail order brides because they feel the women available to them domestically have a lack of traditional family values, are spoiled, and will not be good, caring wives; they believe Asian women will be timid and caring, Latina women exciting and fiery, and European women refined (Jones, 2011; Starr & Adams, 2016). In many cases, the situation of mail order brides is similar to that of child brides. Girls are no longer seen as desirable wives within their communities either because of age, infertility, not being a virgin, or some other reason, so brokers find men willing to marry them for a fee and girls and women are sold to men as their brides in arranged and forced marriages.

Human Trafficking Connection

At least for mail order brides, there is an element that seems consenting–women seek husbands online, meet them before marrying, and have specific things they are looking for, in some cases (Minervini & McAndrew, 2005). Some researchers argue that there is a disproportionate amount of scholarship dedicated to comparing the mail order bride industry to human trafficking (Yakushko & Rajan, 2017). However, in many cases, brokers are selling people for profit, the girls do not know their soon-to-be husbands or the lived reality they are marrying into, and there is a power differential between the bride and her husband (Jackson, 2002; Jones, 2011; Tyldum, 2013). This means that mail order brides is a form of human trafficking that needs to be addressed, even if it is not trafficking in every situation.

Additionally, sometimes the international marriage broker sites are covers for prostitution rings, and act as sites where pimps can buy new girls and sell girls who are no longer of use to them (Jackson, 2002). Immigration status is often used by husbands and buyers as a way to control their mail order brides, stating that if they report abuse, try to leave the relationship, or do not comply with orders, they will be deported (Narayan, 1995; Jackson, 2002; Weller & Junck, 2014). In the case of child brides, the trafficking is a bit more obvious: families are being paid for the possession of their daughters, and children are being sold into dangerous and controlling relationships. In both cases (child brides and mail order brides), women and children are in a vulnerable position and being exploited through fraud, deception, and coercion, which is directly outlined as human trafficking and a human rights violation in the United Nations’ definition of trafficking and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 2003; United Nations, 1948).


Child marriage not only meets the United Nations’ definition for human trafficking, but it is also a human rights violation in the context of several international rulings, such as: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956); Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriage (1964); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966); the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (1978); Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1981); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989); and Vienna Declaration on Programme and Action (1993) (Girls Not Brides, n.d.).

Reviewing the years of some of these documents shows how long child marriage has been an international issue. The United Nations, UNICEF, and the world YWCA have initiated efforts to end child marriages by 2030 by promoting proven practices in reducing child marriages like: increasing girls’ access to education and healthcare, ensuring parents are informed on the risks and dangers associated with child marriage, fighting poverty, and strengthening minimum age of marriage laws (United Nations, 2013; UNICEF, 2018; United Nations News, 2016).

Additionally, as of June 2019, the deputy grand Iman of Al Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa (a formal ruling in Islamic law) that all children, especially girls, must be at least 18 years of age and consenting before being married (Mogoatlhe, 2019). Sunni Islam accounts for about 75-90% of Muslims globally (Mogoatlhe, 2019), which means the fatwa has the potential for a widespread impact. Unless there is a significant increase in not only efforts but also efficacy, however, it is unlikely that the 2030 goal will be met (UNICEF, 2018).

Mail order brides legislation is a bit more difficult because the human rights violations within it are more covert, especially with the growth of the internet being a tool in partner-finding and the romanticizing of transnational relationships through shows like TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé. The United States included provisions specific to mail order brides in the Violence Against Women Act and enacted the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act in an effort to prevent exploitation of international brides by American men (National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), 2019). Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act expired in February 2019, and, as of March 2019, was awaiting approval from the Senate, and the efficacy of the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act is difficult to assess (NNEDV, 2019; Sims, 2015).

The Philippines enacted an anti-mail-order-bride law, in which it is illegal to facilitate the marriage of Filipina women and foreign men as a business (Sims, 2015). The law has largely been ineffective with the use of the internet for marriage brokering, and for lack of designation of an enforcement agency by the Philippine government (Sims, 2015). Alternatively, Taiwan’s legislation has been effective. Since 2003, Taiwan has enacted strict laws controlling advertisements of mail order brides, setting minimum age requirements and spousal age difference limits, and began closely monitoring marriages with foreign brides in an effort to combat human trafficking and prostitution (Sims, 2015). As a result, marriages involving foreign brides has dropped 40%, mail order bride industry profits have been affected by the age limits, and Taiwanese police have begun offering trainings to recognize human trafficking (Sims, 2015).


Social workers are charged with advocating for social, economic, and political justice (National Association of Social Workers, 2017). Therefore, in the case of child brides, it is imperative that micro-practice social workers engage in educating individuals, parents, and communities on the warning signs of intimate partner abuse, the physical and emotional consequences of child sexual abuse, and the dangers of pregnancy and child birth on young, underdeveloped girls (Sossou & Yogtiba, 2009).

On a macro level, social workers must advocate for girls’ rights to pursue education, 18 and over marriage laws, sex and reproductive health education, and domestic violence prevention. UNICEF (n.d.) also highlights the importance of: more research on this topic to create a strong evidence base for policy, programming, and tracking progress; shifting social expectations of young girls; strengthening services offered to victims of child marriage or those at risk; and tackling the challenges that perpetuate child marriage like gender inequality, lack of education, and poverty. All of these are areas where a social work presence and practice lens can be beneficial.

For mail order brides, it is important that the Violence Against Women Act is renewed in 2019 and continually renewed in the future. Additionally, social workers working with immigrant women need to know the signs of abusive relationships, sex trafficking, and prostitution, and know resources to assist women in leaving abusive relationships while protecting their immigrant status.


Amira was a 14-year-old, oldest child of four. Amira’s parents were married when her mother was 13 and her father was 20 years old; similar to each of their parents. Amira’s mother never attended school and had her first child, Amira, at the age of 15. Unlike her mother, Amira was able to attend school until she was 13 years old.

At about the age of 12 or 13, Amira hit puberty, and her parents were concerned about her walking to school and attracting male attention because of her developing body. Since Amira was then just staying home, her parents felt it was time for her to learn wifely duties and to start a family of her own. Amira’s parents had known Adeel’s parents since they were young, and knew Adeel would be able to care for Amira financially, as he was in his 20’s and taking over his family’s business.

Amira and Adeel’s parents arranged for the marriage of Amira to Adeel before her 15th birthday. Amira met Adeel a few times with both of their families before their marriage, but did not know him well. After their marriage, Amira moved in with Adeel and took care of their home until she became pregnant with their first child shortly after turning 15. Amira, now 21, and Adeel, in his early 30’s, are about to have their third child.

Summary of Key Points

  • Child brides and child marriage are persistent issues in violation of several international and national legislation efforts affecting millions of girls every year. Initiatives have begun to end child trafficking by 2030, but will need to increase exponentially if this goal is to be achieved.

  • Mail order brides is a covert and hotly debated form of human trafficking. Some scholars claim there is an over emphasis on the trafficking and prostitution cases and not enough on the instances of educated women entering into international marriages willingly. Nonetheless, there are instances of mail order brides that are trafficking, therefore attention and prevention efforts need to be directed to this issue.

  • Both child brides and mail order brides are often coerced into forced relationships, have limited protections in place for their safety, and are sold for profit into relationships.

Source: Jacquelyn Meshelemiah,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.

Last modified: Monday, September 13, 2021, 11:21 AM