Academic journal article Law & Society Review

When Do Laws Matter? National Minimum-Age-of-Marriage Laws, Child Rights, and Adolescent Fertility, 1989-2007

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

When Do Laws Matter? National Minimum-Age-of-Marriage Laws, Child Rights, and Adolescent Fertility, 1989-2007

Article excerpt

Using the case of adolescent fertility, we ask the questions of whether and when national laws have an effect on outcomes above and beyond the effects of international law and global organizing. To answer these questions, we utilize a fixed-effect time-series regression model to analyze the impact of minimum-age-of-marriage laws in 115 poor- and middle-income countries from 1989 to 2007.We find that countries with strict laws setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 experienced the most dramatic decline in rates of adolescent fertility. Trends in countries that set this age at 18 but allowed exceptions (for example, marriage with parental consent) were indistinguishable from countries that had no such minimum-age-of-marriage law. Thus, policies that adhere strictly to global norms are more likely to elicit desired outcomes. The article concludes with a discussion of what national law means in a diffuse global system where multiple actors and institutions make the independent effect of law difficult to identify.

Teen births, and their personal and societal toll, are of central concern to a vast network of organizations, professionals, and activists in the global community. Despite decreases in rates of adolescent fertility over the past two decades, the World Health Organization (2008) reports that nearly 16 million girls aged 15-19 give birth each year. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF 2008), more than 70,000 girls die from pregnancyrelated complications annually. Scholars have found that teenage childbearing increases the risk of school dropout and HIV infection and strains households and community health systems (Dodoo & Frost 2008; Gage 1998; Singh 1998). Recently, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (2011) turned attention to the effect of teen births-90 percent of which occur within marriage-on overpopulation and gender inequity. Our analysis of this social problem addresses the broad question of the relative importance that national laws play in bringing about global social change.

In this article, we trace the history of global mobilization against adolescent childbirth by turning to the related issue of child marriage, as many international organizations have pushed for the prohibition of child marriage as a way to curb adolescent fertility (UNICEF 2008). Next, we situate our question in the broader literature on how international institutions, norms, and discourses, or what previous scholars have coined the "world polity" (Boli & Thomas 1999), shape concrete local reforms. To date, this literature has focused on either the impact of international organizing on national policymaking or the impact of treaty ratification on outcomes within countries. Our unique contribution is to consider another important but often overlooked issue-whether or when national policies affect outcomes net of international organizing and international law. After explaining how our analysis addresses this lacuna and introducing our methodology, we present statistical models predicting changes from 1989 to 2007 in adolescent fertility rates in poor and middle-income countries.

We find that countries with minimum-age-of-marriage laws that set the minimum age of marriage at 18, thus complying with current international standards, are more effective than other countries at reducing rates of adolescent fertility over time, even when international law and the presence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are controlled. Importantly, we also find that the nature of the law matters-countries with laws that provide exceptions to international standards, such as allowing earlier marriage with parental consent, were less successful at reducing adolescent fertility than countries that had laws that adhered strictly to those standards.

Child Marriage and Adolescent Fertility as Global Concerns

Combating child marriage has become a core strategy for reducing teen births worldwide (UNICEF 2001; WHO 2008). …

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