Our results suggest that the American public are poorly informed about child marriage. This in itself is not especially surprising, and is in line with the widespread ignorance about global health issues demonstrated by Rosling et al. (1). What is interesting, however, is the direction of common errors, revealing biases in popular understanding. These misconceptions have important implications for initiatives addressing child marriage and aiming to empower girls and young women in both low- and high-income settings. Most strikingly, half of those surveyed mistakenly believed that the cut-off for child marriage is younger than the legal threshold of 18 years, and nearly three-quarters incorrectly believed that most child marriages occur at 15 years or below, despite the fact that child marriage primarily takes place in later adolescence (3). With many participants also answering that they believe childhood ends earlier than 18 years, we argue that the specific terminology of ‘child marriage’ or ‘child bride’, as opposed to say ‘adolescent’ or ‘teen marriage’ contributes to this confusion. In contrast, marriage at equivalent ages in high-income populations, like the USA, are more typically referred to as cases of ‘teen marriage’ (e.g. 22), ‘early marriage’ (e.g. 23) or ‘adolescent marriage’ (e.g. 24). Such terminology conjures notions of relatively older girls/young women with a higher degree of autonomy in the decision to marry. The term ‘child marriage’ is used with reference to higher-income populations, but more rarely (e.g. 25). The reasons behind, and implications of, this discrepancy in terminology require consideration.
A comparison of child marriage to teen pregnancy is instructive. Pregnancy under the age of 18 is labelled as ‘teen pregnancy’ in global and public health discourse across both low and high-income contexts. As such, if a 17-year-old is pregnant, she is labelled a ‘teen’, but if married, and especially if she from a low-income country, she is a labelled ‘child’. This distinction is likely rooted in the fact that interest in teen pregnancy initiated in reference to sexual and reproductive health in high-income societies, before later being extended into wider global health scholarship (9,10). In contrast, interest in child marriage gained momentum first through concerns over female wellbeing in relatively poorer nations, originating out of an international human rights framework which approaches the notion of a child as a legal entity (5,8). Notably, the adoption of a legal 18-year threshold between child and adult was a logical consequence of a series of legal changes relating to childhood in high-income countrieswhich had come about over nearly a century, such as the implementation of child labor laws and mandatory schooling (22). In contrast, this threshold is relatively arbitrary in countries and contexts without this shared historical progression of legal changes surrounding concepts of childhood. Strategic representations of childhood innocence and suffering also have a long history in international development advocacy, where they are recognized as an effective, yet often problematic, method of garnering public attention and donor support for multiple humanitarian causes (2).
What implications might there be of the public overestimating the prevalence of very early child marriages? On the one hand, it might have the desirable outcome of creating a sense of urgency and increasing commitments to the global health target to end child marriage. But this potential benefit comes at the cost of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. In particular, it reinforces views of girls/young women in low-income countries as predominantly passive victims rather than active agents in their own lives. Since child marriages are mostly assumed to occur via exploitative coercion by parents and husbands, overestimating the prevalence of child marriage may also reinforce wider views of low-income nations as in urgent need of moral rescue from their own cultural traditions. Such representations can counterintuitively undermine humanitarian empathy and instead encourage ethnocentric judgements of low-income countries as to blame for their own hardships (2), and more generally stifle consideration of the broader structural factors (e.g. poverty, lack of viable alternatives) determinantal to girls and women (26,27).
The large majority of participants incorrectly believed that child marriage is illegal throughout the majority of the USA. Marriage before age 18 years is, in fact, illegal in only two states. This finding has at least two implications. First, organizations such as Unchained at Last (28) which campaign to criminalize child marriage in the USA, should act on the assumption that the public are currently almost totally unaware that it remains legal across almost the whole country. Second, it is evident that few Americans are aware of the hypocrisy inherent to their county’s position on the topic of child marriage. On the one hand, the US and other high-income nations are putting considerable pressure on low-income nations to adopt and enforce criminal laws regarding child marriage. On the other hand, recent efforts to raise ages at marriage in the US have largely been unsuccessful due to the sentiment that pregnant teenagers should have the option of marriage (29). Such contingencies are notably absent from the US’s exported position on marriage before age 18 years.
Participants substantially overestimated the prevalence of child marriage abroad, but also at home. This fits the general tendency for the public to overestimate the prevalence of undesirable behaviors and outcomes as demonstrated by Rosling et al. (1). Alternatively, these misconceptions could result, at least in part, from the public holding outdated viewpoints rather than outright errors, since the prevalence of child marriage has declined globally over recent years. This interpretation however is at odds with the fact that public awareness of child marriage has risen dramatically over the last decade (Figure 1). As such, to the extent that the public are informed about child marriage we can expect them to have heard more recent statistics, rather than outdated ones. Participants also had a poor sense of the regional distribution of child marriage outside of the USA, with the majority answering that child marriage primarily takes place among Muslim-majority regions of the Middle East and North Africa (it is most common in South Asia and sub Saharan Africa). This misconception could be reflective of wider stereotypes about Islam and the treatment of women and girls within Muslim culture. This is a speculative interpretation, but is consistent with wider patterns of Islamophobia documented in the US (30).
A limitation of our study is the use of an MTurk survey, rather than a more representative survey of the American public. Past research has, for example, demonstrated that MTurk workers are more educated, less religious, and more likely to be unemployed than the general population (31). The reliability of data collected from MTurk has also not been found to be significantly different than data collected by traditional means (32). A second limitation of our study is that our methodology cannot pinpoint the source of public misconceptions over child marriage, or evaluate the potential role of end child marriage campaigns in seeding misinformation. In this sense it would particularly useful in future work to consider variation in public understanding in relation to such factors as experience of other cultures, educational or professional background with global health, and knowledge of the global goal to end child marriage.
Action can be taken to limit public misconceptions over child marriage. We advocate that the term ‘child marriage’ is replaced with more appropriate terminology which synchronizes public understanding with reality. ‘Adolescent’ or ‘teen marriage’ are solid alternatives. Alternatively, ‘child marriage’ could be used with specific reference to marriage at especially young ages, such as under the age of 15 or 16 years. Such efforts would also encourage discussions about the potentially distinct drivers and wellbeing implications of marriage in late vs. early adolescence. Likewise, more care needs to be taken to not present all cases of early marriage as forced by definition—a statement which is at odds with a growing body of research in both low and high-income settings (15,16,18–20,25). These recommendations do not deny the existence or seriousness of forced child marriage, or that coercion, consent and the emergence of autonomy among young people are complicated phenomena to define and measure (8). They do however avoid the promotion of stereotypes which will, in some cases, unfairly villainize parents and husbands, and falsely victimize and stigmatize young people that choose to marry. More appropriate terminology would also encourage greater engagement with the reality that at least some young girls and women actively choose to marry when alternative options are unavailable. Ultimately, this can only lead to more culturally-sensitive and more effective public and global health policy and practice.