To Marry Or Not To Marry? A Behavioral Science Perpsective


The current issue of early and child marriages 

Approximately 39,000 children are married every day (Unicef, 2013) and pushed further into poverty and despair. In developing countries such as South Asia, tribal leaders can decide marriages, with parents or children having no say in the matter, robbing girls of their future as early as the age of 13. Commonly thought of as a developing world issue, early or child marriages is a practice seen across the world, affecting girls disproportionately. The Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit advocacy organization, finds that child marriage persists across the US, even today, legally through parental or judicial consent for children under the age of 18.  Le Strat et al, (2011) show that as many as 8.9% of women were married as children in the United States in 2011.

By definition, an early marriage or a child marriage is a marriage before the age of 18, the common legal age for marriages across the world. At the age of 18, individuals are usually considered to be legally an adult, having completed basic 12 years of schooling and able to earn a living wage. Child marriages can have harmful consequences for the individuals involved. Girls that marry underage face many hardships including family instability, incomplete education, lack of work opportunities, higher risk of domestic violence and deteriorating mental and physical health.  As devastating as the outcomes of early marriages are, it is imperative to understand the behavioral practice and its effects on economic decisions of the household.

The shortcomings of current policy interventions

The concern about early marriages is not new and is recognized by governments alike. In attempts to better opportunities for girls, various policy interventions have been tried and tested across the world. Most of these include programs that aim to increase the education attained of girls, which research proves to significantly delay the age at marriage (Duflo et al, 2015). These interventions have been in the form of education subsidies and/or cash transfers such as the Berhane Hewan Program in Ethiopia and Punjab Female School Stipend Program in Pakistan. While helpful in the short term, they may or may not entirely alter the behavioral decision and validation for early marriages that exists in certain cultural norms.

Behavioral decision theory demands a rational decision of the age of marriage for an individual. Many parents will argue that an early marriage is based on rational persuasions rooted in cultural tradition. However, these stem from incomplete information of the consequences of early marriages and a lack of understanding of the greater potential. Therefore, where many policy interventions have taken place, none have been as successful as hoped in generating a permanent behavioral response.

An opportunity for behaviorally guided policy responses

What is required is a change of belief structure, which can only come about through the understanding of the consequences of child marriages. Here, non-profit organizations can play a significant part in the development of societies, raising awareness and understanding, which is a much less costly initiative than education subsidies and cash transfers.

Raising awareness needs to be structured based on beliefs and respective cultures. Some forms of this strategy have been used in developing countries, but has been entirely absent in the developed world. This absence could be rooted in the illusion that child marriages do not exist in the west. One form of acheiving this awareness in the developing countries has been door-to-door visits of lady health workers with pamphlets. Another more recent idea has been to perform moral based theatrical events or plays in the village community. This helps shift beliefs individually and collectively of the village community. For altering beliefs in countries such as the US, a possible avenue is using media in a similar manner as the theatrical plays of the villages in the east.

As completely clear as this may seem, policy and research have not been able to test whether providing more and complete information alters behavior of early marriage across the world, specifically in developing countries. Thus while the simple solution makes sense, evidence does not exist that proves this would be case.  One thing that is certain, a truly committed response is key to reducing this practice.



Duflo, E., Dupas, P. & Kremer, M. (2015) “Education, HIV, and Early Fertility: Experimental Evidence from Kenya”. American Economic Review Vol. 105(9), pp. 2257-97.

Le Strat, Y., Dubertet, C. & Le Foll,B. (2011) “Child Marriage in the United States and Its Association with Mental Health in Women” 128 Pediatrics 524.

Unicef, (2013)

Aisha Khan
About Aisha Khan:

Aisha Khan is PhD candidate in Economics at the University of Calgary. She specializes in family and gender economics within developing and developed communities.