This article provides an analysis of social and behavioral drivers of child marriage to advance the protection and empowerment of girls from child marriage. Child marriage directly negatively affects girls and boys and, more broadly, negatively impacts their families and communities. Our analysis emerges from work undertaken for UNICEF’s Global Initiative on Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families, and Communities (FPCC). Child marriage affects many dimensions of a girl’s well-being, from their health to their education. Every year, 12 million girls1 across countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities experience child marriage, which, according to UNICEF’s definition, is understood as “any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child.”2 Delaying marriage improves girls’ opportunities to attend school, select a safe and healthy livelihood and “develop more fully as an individual in her own right.”3 Child marriage is a persistent problem despite the fact that many countries with high rates of child marriage have civil laws that explicitly prohibit child marriage and set a minimum age for marriage.4

Faith actors are both a force in perpetuating child marriage and a key potential ally for discouraging the practice. Different reviews have found religious influence to be both “one of the strongest of all major causes of child marriage”5 while also “caution[ing] against broad generalizations about child marriage and faith affiliation… [because of] substantial heterogeneity within the adherents of any particular faith as to how the practice of child marriage is considered.”5 Within the broader discourse of women and girls’ human rights, “seeking contact with [religious] leaders…might be the most important strategic instrument.”6 While interventions, such as cash transfers,7 can significantly reduce child marriage, such interventions do not directly address the underlying social norms that promote this practice. Therefore, it is strategically important to design interventions that affect those norms and potentially promote larger impacts through faith-led, community-based initiatives.

Research on religions as they relate to global health and development goals is a growing field8 with some discussion of child marriage already9,10 but no analysis explicitly through the lens of social norms theory. This article is based on a review of 28 purposively selected program reports, policy briefs, and academic articles on child marriage and religious and traditional influences and, as such, is a review and synthesis of major work in this area. We selected sources from a literature review11 on faith and social behavior change programming conducted by the FPCC initiative. The extensive literature review aimed to collect sources from around the world. However, searches were limited to English language sources only. More than 1,600 resources were found initially, then whittled down to 91 relevant sources, from which we selected those specifically on child marriage. We also added new sources published since the literature review from additional searches along the same parameters, bringing the sources to 28 in total.

The original contribution of this article is to purposefully use social norms theory to examine the religious drivers of child marriage as they intersect with other social norms that drive this behavior. We expect this analysis to be particularly helpful for those doing a context analysis of the intersecting factors leading to child marriage in a country context with a view to planning for implementation of a program or project that engages faith actors to reduce child marriage.