Norway approved on Tuesday a law banning all child marriages, with activists saying it would set an example for others before the global deadline of 2030 to eradicate the practice.
The Nordic country has a minimum age of 18 but allows 16 and 17-year-olds to marry with the consent of the parents and the permission of the county governor.
A government spokeswoman said that very few young people under 18 had been seeking marriage in recent years. "We believe ... that this law will send a clear message, both nationally and internationally, that we do not accept children who marry in Norway," said Linda Hofstad Helleland, Minister of Children and Equality.
"A marriage should always be based on full, free and informed consent," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Worldwide, about 12 million girls get married each year before they turn 18, about one girl every two seconds, according to Girls Not Brides, a global campaign group.
The United Nations has declared that all countries should end child marriage by 2030 as part of the global development goals. The Norwegian branch of international aid agency Plan International, which has been calling for legal reform, said the unanimous vote in parliament on Tuesday for a total ban was an important step.
"One of the main reasons why the law should change is the global perspective," spokeswoman Siv Meisingseth said. "How can we encourage other countries in the developing world to prohibit child marriage if we do not have our own house in order?"
Meisingseth said the reform, which comes a year after Denmark adopted a similar ban, would give Norway one of the strictest laws on child marriage in Europe. "We really want other countries in Europe to copy this law, which should be the norm," he said.
Child marriage forces girls to drop out of school, limit their opportunities and trap them in poverty, experts say. It also increases the risk of spousal abuse, rape and serious complications during childbirth. Parliament will have another reading of the bill next week, but the sources said it was a formality and that the law is likely to come into force shortly.
The law will also prohibit Norwegians from marrying abroad if either party is under 18 years of age. Meisingseth reports that there have been cases in which girls have been taken abroad to marry men in their parents' home country. The maximum penalty for child marriage will be three years in prison.
(With inputs from Reuters)