HKS Authors

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Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, HSPH; Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law, HLS


An estimated 650 million girls and women alive today married before their 18th birthday. Referred to as girl child marriage, the formal or informal union of the girl-child before age 18, the practice is increasingly recognized as a key roadblock to global health, development, and gender equality. Although more research than ever has focused on girl child marriage, an important gap remains in deconstructing the construct. Through an extensive review of primary and secondary sources, including legal documents, peer-reviewed articles, books, and grey literature across disciplines, we explore what the term “girl child marriage” means and why it more accurately captures current global efforts than other terms like early, teenage, or adolescent marriage. To do this, we dive into different framings on marriage, children, and gender. We find that there has been historical change in the understanding of girl child marriage in published literature since the late 1800s, and that it is a political, sociocultural, and value-laden term that serves a purpose in different contexts at different moments in time. The lack of harmonized terminology, particularly in the global public health, prevents alignment amongst different stakeholders in understanding what the problem is in order to determine how to measure it and create solutions on how to address it. Our intent is to encourage more intentional use of language in global public health research.


Efevbera, Yvette, and Jacqueline Bhabha. "Defining and Deconstructing Girl Child Marriage and Applications to Global Public Health." BMC Public Health 20 (2020).