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"I have never seen something like that": Discrepancies between lived experiences and the global health concept of child marriage in northern Tanzania.

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The concept of 'child marriage' in global health distinguishes ostensibly harmful from healthy ages to marry at a universally-applied threshold of 18-years. With intensifying efforts to end child marriage, targeted communities are increasingly asked to change their perception of such marriages from relatively benign to profoundly problematic. The objective of this study is to understand how this shift in perception is navigated by adolescent girls and young women (AGYW).


Using qualitative data collected in 2019 from a semi-urban community in Tanzania where marriage under 18-years is common and campaigns to end child marriage ongoing, we contrast reports of lived experiences of marriage under 18-years among AGYW to views of child marriage as an abstract concept. Thirteen in-depth interviews with AGYW, as part of a wider qualitative study, were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using a framework analysis approach.


While many AGYW had heard of child marriage, the concept was routinely conflated with forced marriage, which is rare in the community, and non-marital teenage sex and pregnancy, which are common. As a likely consequence, participants disagreed on whether or not child marriage occurs locally. Furthermore, accounts of real-life marriages under 18 sometimes aligned with, but often departed from, common narratives about the purported causes and harmful consequences inherent to the global health concept of child marriage.


We argue that engaging with diverse local views and experiences of marrying young is essential to producing culturally-sensitive, effective initiatives addressing the vulnerabilities of female adolescence.

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