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Arijit Nandi is an Assistant Professor at McGill University, Institute for Health and Social Policy, Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Global Health, and the Principal Investigator of the Maternal and Child Health Equity (MACHEquity) research program at the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy. Gonzalo Moreno is the program's project manager. Belinda Maswikwa was a doctoral fellow with MACHEquity between 2013 and 2015.

In just over two months, the United Nations member states will convene in New York City to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will help guide the global political agenda for the next 15 years. One such goal is achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by ending harmful practices such as child marriage.

Child marriage affects a substantial number of women – more than 700 million alive today according to UNICEF – and is linked to a multitude of adverse consequences: lower educational attainment; reduced economic opportunity; and negative reproductive and health outcomes, including domestic violence, adolescent birth, and maternal mortality.

Preventing child marriage can empower women and improve their health and social well-being, which are key to achieving most of the 17 proposed SDGs.

Recognizing this importance, in the past year the Canadian government has committed more than $40-million to support organizations working towards ending child, early and forced marriage.

The causes of child marriage are numerous and there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, but legally protecting the rights of girls is emerging as a critical factor. Most countries have established minimum ages of marriage at age 18, in line with international and regional commitments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Crucially, however, there are frequently exceptions that contribute to the perpetuation of the practice. For example, in Morocco, where the minimum age of marriage is technically 18, a report found that judges approved 90 per cent of the requests they received to let minors marry. Many countries also allow girls under 18 to marry if they have parental consent. In most of the world, a combination of religious laws, social expectations, cultural mores, and financial incentives such as dowries means that parents have strong motivations to sanction marriages that would otherwise be illegal. Currently, 54 per cent of low- and middle-income countries allow girls to be married before the age of 18 if they receive consent from their parents.

Closing these legal loopholes can help curb the practice of child marriage. Our recently published analysis of legal frameworks in 12 sub-Saharan African countries, including nations with some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, supports this. Those countries that consistently protect girls' rights by setting their minimum age of marriage, minimum age of marriage with parental consent, and age of sexual consent at 18 or older had rates of child marriage and adolescent birth that were 40 per cent and 25 per cent lower than countries where these laws contradicted one another. Our findings suggest that countries that leave loopholes open – in Tanzania, for example, a girl can only consent to sex at age 18, but she can be married at 15 if her parents approve – are less successful at limiting child marriage and adolescent pregnancies, together with their detrimental effects.

Ending child marriage will take concerted effort from different sectors. Upending deeply entrenched social and cultural norms in favour of the practice will be challenging, but our work shows that developing and enforcing a consistent set of laws prohibiting child marriage is an indispensable first step. Canadian and international organizations that share the goal of ending child marriage, partnering with local actors and policymakers, can play an important role in taking this first step. A consistent legislative environment that protects child rights might also enhance the programs that Canadian NGOs and other institutions are carrying out towards this goal by targeting the determinants of child marriage and improving girls' access to education and economic opportunity.