Servile Marriage

When a young girl or woman has no right to refuse being entered into a marriage, the marriage can be deemed a “servile marriage.” In such an arrangement a young woman might be given in exchange for money or other payment; she could be sold to someone else and might be inherited by another person if her husband dies. In some cases, young girls and women are forced to marry wealthy older men to become sexual and domestic slaves.

Servile marriage is listed in United Nations’ Conventions as “a practice similar to slavery.” Article I of the Supplementary Convention prohibits any institution or practice whereby

"(i) A woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind; (ii) The husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or (iii) A woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person."

According to Anti-Slavery International, the tradition of servile marriage is still practiced in Ethiopia, where it is common for a man to rape an underage girl. Once the girl is raped, the rapist goes to her father and demands the girl as his wife. The father and the rape victim have no option but to agree, as no other man will marry her. Other recorded forms of servile marriage include instances of girls being pledged to priests in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria to atone for offences committed by family members; in certain South Asian countries, a young girl is sometimes “bought” by paying a bride price and without the assent of the girl. Girls in servile marriages are often abused physically and sexually by their rapists, their buyers, or the priests.


  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1999)
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, stipulates in its Article 16 that: "2. The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory."
  • UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956)

Related Sites

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs:
Memo on Forced Marriage

Content by Mini Singh
Research Analyst, FSE

Content in Arabic by Raja El Habti
Research Assistant, FSE