Child marriage and the power of mental models

In 2014, an estimated number of 700 million women worldwide were married before of the age of 18, some 250 million women even before the age of 15. Although numbers of early marriage have decreased slowly in the last decades, 280 million girls are still at risk of being married off before the age of 18 if no immediate action is taken.Klugman, Hanmer et al

Child marriage prevalence in 111 countries (Klugman et al., 2014, p110)

The map clearly shows that child marriage is a global phenomenon. The most child marriages occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (UNICEF, 2014). Child marriage is not only a violation of a human right, but it undermines development efforts such as more education for girls, the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, reduction of maternal mortality, or increasing participation in society, employment, and enterprise levels through various channels (Malhotra, 2010).

Efforts to eliminate child marriage require a thorough understanding of the local social and cultural concepts that make both children and parents accept early marriages. This involves understanding the causes and consequences of early marriages, but also paying attention to different ways of thinking, to social norms, and to the mental models in regard to gender roles, family patterns, or marriage.

Mental models can be considered “ideological schemes”. The models frame how people understand themselves and the environment they live in, and how people perceive their abilities or inability to change the environment they live in, either by their individualist action or public policy (Coyne and Boettke, 2015).

It is very challenging to overcome or only try to change mental models; even if those models are obviously not benefitting individuals as it is undoubtedly the case with child marriage. Child marriage has devastating effects on the girls’ physical and psychosocial health, their education, and perpetuates poverty. Especially the “feminization of poverty” is exacerbated by the practice of early marriages (UNICEF, 2001).

The World Development Report (WDR) 2015 names four factors that can explain the staying power of mental models: attention and perception, the need to test some types of beliefs at the level of society, belief traps and ideology and confirmation bias (The World Bank, 2015, p 69). These four factors can explain why child marriage is still prevalent in many regions all around the world, although initiatives to prohibit early marriage are increasing.

I want to complement this theoretical framework with an interview with Khadija Al-Salami, a Yemeni filmmaker who addressed the issue of child marriage in her latest award-winning movie I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced (2015). Khadija Al-Salami herself has been married off by her family at the age of 11, and during an interview conducted in Marburg about her latest movie she also explained the “mental model” about gender role and marriage that is still prevalent in many regions across Yemen:

“when my family forced me to get married, I didn’t understand why they would do such a thing. My grandmother who really loved me was pushing me. And I couldn’t understand it. But when I grow up I realized she was brought up with this tradition. She always used to say “A women is born for two things: either get married or get buried”. I think if she had the chance to be educated, she would not be the same women. It is the same thing with my mother. She was forced to get married when she was 8 years old. And when she tells us her story, she is still until today traumatized about what happened to her. And I asked her “how can you accept me to get married when you are traumatized yourself from that experience?” She said “well, my daughter, I thought that was our destiny, I didn’t know any better until you came and you made a change and we all realized that it is really bad.” (Research Network Re-Configuration, 2016).

This quote confirms the power of mental models and the four factors that maintain the power of mental models. Although many female members of Khadija Al-Salami’s family have been affected by early marriage and are traumatized, their automatic thinking system, the social norms, and the mental model of family and gender roles leave no other options for them than to decide to marry off their daughters at a young age. The quote also emphasizes the importance of the three factors mind, society, and behavior that are also considered the framework of human decision taking according to the WDR 2015.

Fortunately, a solution to overcome this mental model of gender and family role is suggested: education. The importance of early education as a mean to change a social norm and mental model is also promoted by the WDR as a “promising arena” through with policy can affect mental models (The World Bank, 2015, p. 70)

In order to eliminate child marriage, several studies (Wodon et al., 2015, UNICEF, 2001) promote increased research and raising awareness that investments in the elimination of child marriage hold great benefits not only for the girls’ futures, but for the whole community. Furthermore, they advocate the implementation of newly designed programs and policy designs that take into account the different cultural concepts or mental models that are prevalent all around the world. The key factor hereby is education. If parents better understand the benefit of postponed marriage and the value of educating girls, the shared mental model about early marriage may be challenged and change. This could in turn translate into a change in social norms and make early marriages socially unaccepted.


Coyne, C. J. and Boettke, P. J., eds. 2015. The Oxford handbook of Austrian economics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

I am Nojoom, Age 10 and divorced. 2015. Directed by Khadija Al-Salami. Yemen: n.a..
(Trailer available at: )

Klugman, J., Hanmer, L., Twigg, S., Hasan, T., McCleary-Sills, J. and Santamaria, J.. 2014. Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity. Washington D.C.: The World Bank.

Malhotra, A. 2010. The Causes, Consequences and Solutions to Forced Child Marriage in the Developing World. Testimony Submitted to U.S. House of Representatives Human Rights Commission. [Accessed 15 July 2016]. Available from:  .

Research Network Re-Configuration. 2016. Newsletter No. 5 [Online]. Forthcoming at:

The World Bank. 2015. The World Bank World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. Washington D.C.: The World Bank.

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2001. Early Marriage: Child Spouses. Innocenti Digest, no. 7.[Accessed 15 July 2016]. Available at:

UNICEF. 2014. Ending Child Marriage: Progress and prospects. New York: UNICEF.

Wodon, Q., Petroni, S., Male, C., Onagoruwa, A., Savadogo, A., Edmeades, J. and Kes, A. 2015. Economic Impacts of Child Marriage:: Preliminary findings from analyses of existing data. Economic Impacts of Child Marriage study. RESEARCH BRIEF. [Accessed 15 July 2016] Available at:

3 thoughts on “Child marriage and the power of mental models

  1. The idea of child marriage is a disaster and big efforts are needed to fight it. I’m from Yemen and we have suffered badly from this. But in the last few decades, big change occurred socially and legally against children marriage, causing this phenomenon to recede sharply. For example, few stories such Nojoom’s happened and ended with divorce and judicial punishment on the parents. What I want to mention here is that the children marriage is similar to the children use in porn websites around the world especially in Europe and Russia. In this case, the difference between developed and developing countries is the fertility rate, which means that the situation would be worse in developing countries as young girls might get birth, and this affects her badly in health and psychology. But the child is still child, either to get married or to be used in prostitution. In one click, we will find millions of porn videos using children and thousands of them are uploaded daily, although it could be not that easy if strict procedures executed against it by governments such what is happening on 2012 songs that couldn’t be opened in some developed countries. Unfortunately, I suffered to find much literature or media attention focusing on this case. In this regard, we should look at this issue from humanitarian point of view to restrict such norms and commercial use of children and punish people commit this.


    1. Parents are trapped. Going with the tradition is their cheapest option. Poverty fosters belonging to the tradition, because it is costly to get out of the mental model and go for a better pathway: Education and social as well as institutional development. It is very sad, because women can boost a developing (and developed) country’s economy.
      Unfortunately, the countries will remain in an “social norm” trap and thereby don’t get rid of inequality and inhuman circumstances.


  2. it is not surprising when citing Sub-Saharan Africa as example of prevalence of child marriages. Indeed the most of the African countries are poor who could now supplement their living standard by generating income via child marriages. This is one of the principal reason for the huge gender inequality in education and little attention on women empowerment. Proponent of such despicable especially custodian of tradition hold that it is feudal practice of their ancestors which has to be maintain and carryout. However, this usually occur in most villages than in cities either due to traditional belief or adamant nature of the society (village) to adapt to changes due to high illiteracy rate. I want to mention here that it is the duty for the government or Non-government Organization to assist in educating the locals about the negative consequences of this practices so as to eradicate the ills of child marriage. The future of most female children had been let astray whom the economy could have benefited for greater economic performance and improvement in living standard.

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