Child marriage persists across Canada, rural communities, study finds

TORONTO — A new study has found that child marriage “remains legal and persists” across Canada, despite the country’s global efforts to help end the practice abroad.

The study, conducted by researchers at McGill University, found that more than 3,600 marriage certificates were issued to Canadian children under the age of 18 between 2000 and 2018.

More than 85 per cent of marriage certificates granted to Canadian children between 2000 and 2018 were issued to girls, who typically wed much older spouses, according to the study. Researchers say this “gendered patterning” is uniform with child marriage practices around the world.

“Our results show that Canada has its own work to do to achieve its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call for an end to child marriage by the year 2030,” study co-author and McGill assistant professor Alissa Koski said in a press release.

The findings were published Friday in the peer-reviewed academic journal Population and Development Review.

According to the study, child marriage is defined as “formal or informal (common-law) marriage before the age of 18.” Researchers say the practice is a “globally-recognized indicator of gender inequality” as the health and development consequences disproportionately impact young girls.

While much research focuses on child marriages in developing countries, study co-author and McGill sociology professor Shelley Clark says the findings show that these unions are often “overlooked and understudied” in wealthier nations, such as Canada.

“The persistence of this practice within Canada highlights some of the inherent challenges to fully eradicating child marriage and reveals an important inconsistency between Canada’s domestic laws and its global policies,” Clark said in the release.

Researchers say the study is the “first to shed light on how common child marriages are,” in Canada, however, the practice is still seen less than in other countries.

RISE IN COMMON-LAW CHILD MARRIAGES

The study reported that an increasing number of child marriages in recent years in Canada have been informal, common-law unions.

According to the study, formal marriage accounted for more than half of all child unions in Canada. By 2016, the study reported that 98 per cent of child unions were considered common‐law with nearly 2,300 children between the ages of 15 and 17 married informally.

The study found that the highest estimates of any type of child marriage, including formal and common-law, were in Saskatchewan (0.5 per cent) as well as in the territories (1.7 per cent).

Using data from vital statistics agencies and recent censuses, researchers also found that formal child marriage remains most prominent in Alberta (0.03 per cent) and Manitoba (0.04 per cent).

Researchers say the increase in informal unions may be in response to global disapproval of child marriages.

“While the number of marriage certificates issued to children across the country has declined, it’s possible that individuals are opting for more informal unions in response to growing social disapproval of child marriage,” the authors noted.

The researchers added that this makes it more challenging to determine the exact number of child marriages across Canada, and whether concerns about “social or legal consequences have led to changes in reporting behaviours.”

Researchers say informal child unions, such as common-law, can be “just as harmful as formal marriages” as they often provide less social, legal and economic protection, according to the study.

For example, the study noted that individuals in Quebec who are in common-law unions are not entitled to alimony or division of property if that union were to end.

Researchers say preventing common-law unions with children in Canada will require “different and innovative approaches” to help address deeper motivations for engaging in child marriage, which they plan to examine in future studies. They also plan to assess the mental health consequences of child marriage in Canada.

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