In Plain Sight: Combatting Child Marriage on Your Platform

By ,
June 1, 2023
Close-up of a child bride's hands resting on her belly, wearing a white dress with pearl embellishments

To proactively mitigate the exploitative practice child marriage and its manifestation online, Trust & Safety teams must be equipped with an understanding of the sophisticated circumvention techniques and socio-religious keywords used to mask this violative activity in geographic regions where the practice of child marriage is prevalent.

This article is based on the research of Kavya Sharma, an ActiveFence Human Exploitation Researcher.

Child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights and often involves the illegal act of human trafficking. While this harmful phenomenon has been covered by academics, international development agencies, and NGOs, little research has been conducted on how child marriage manifests online, and even fewer resources exist for Trust & Safety teams seeking to stop this dangerous activity. 

This blog focuses on the digital markers of child marriage in the Middle East, where the practice persists: over 13% of women in the Middle East and North Africa are married before the age of 18, totaling more than 700 thousand child brides each year. Due to the prevalence of child marriage in the region, threat actors often conduct their digital operations in plain sight. 

To proactively mitigate the exploitative practice of online child marriage, Trust & Safety teams must be equipped with an understanding of the sophisticated circumvention techniques and socio-religious keywords used to mask this violative activity. This article provides an overview of the nuanced child marriage threat landscape where cultural practices influence online harm.

Interested in learning more about the latest threats to child safety? Read our recently released report, Child Predator Abuse of Generative AI.

What are the Legal Implications?

The international community has broadly accepted prohibitions on child marriage (Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In addition to these international treaties, jurisdictions throughout the Middle East have established regulatory frameworks which set forth a legal minimum marital age of consent. However, both parental consent and the occurrence of unrecorded marriages can act as important determinants to supersede these laws. 

Click the map below for legal marital age requirements in selected countries, which references data from Girls Not Brides.

The Map


To learn more about how to maintain a safe, secure, and compliant platform, visit our Compliance Hub.

How Does Child Marriage Manifest Online?

Taking into consideration the regional legal landscape, its cultural application, and important exceptions, it is essential for Trust & Safety teams to understand how this dangerous activity manifests online. 

Child marriages in the Middle East are arranged by third parties, either by families or intermediary organizations. Today, these organizations often emerge online as matchmaking service providers, which operate both nationally and transnationally. While most networks focus on child brides – marrying young girls with adult men – others specialize in facilitating marriage between minors, and fewer still provide child grooms. This mirrors known real-world patterns of child marriage. 

Within these networks, we have identified similar online behavioral patterns and related key trends that hint at the true purpose of their services. Signifiers can include: 

  • Religious Affiliation: Networks reference a connection to religious terminology within their content, including promises of a ‘halal marriage,’ or claims that their matchmaking services are conducted by so-called priests. 
  • Naming Conventions: Entities frequently brand themselves based on alleged functionality, including the use of naming patterns such as ‘matchmaker’ or ‘marriage proposal.’
  • Imagery: Logos may include the use of flags to indicate the countries from where the minors originate. Emojis such as ✍ 💍 are also added to logos to indicate the signing of marriage contracts. 


Coordinated child marriage networks abuse social media platforms to promote their operations. As part of their assumed online matchmaking agency identity, they sometimes emulate key features of major dating platforms: providing adult users with access to profiles from which to select minors for marriage. 

These profiles display a minor’s photograph together with their biographical information. Such criteria can include nationality, religion, cultural heritage, and socioeconomic status. Profiles also contain the minor’s age and can feature qualities that the minor seeks in a marriage partner, e.g., “a kind, devout, and respectful man.”

Cross-Platform Operations

Some matchmaking agencies operate openly on social media platforms. However, a network’s presence often extends well beyond social media. To effectively combat the novel abuse of online child marriage, Trust & Safety teams must therefore be aware of the presence of coordinated cross-platform activity. 

For example, clients interested in making contact with the child marriage vendor are often directed from their social media account to an instant messaging account or a Telegram channel. These communication channels are promoted in video and image descriptions that offer illicit services. Though less commonly used, other threat actors may also direct traffic to a more established website that contains a contact form or email address.

Diagram showing various online accounts linked to non-violative posts and video descriptions, including social media, instant messaging, Telegram channel, website with contact form, and email address.

A typical cross-platform child marriage operation


Increased attention from Trust & Safety teams and global human rights organizations towards child marriage has led threat actors to develop new circumvention techniques to avoid detection. 

One tactic involves intentionally omitting the personal details of child brides, instead using variations of numbers to connote their age:  

  • “07” indicates a bride was born in 2007, and, therefore, is 16 years old;
  • “09” indicates a bride was born in 2009, and, therefore, is 14 years old.

In order to circumvent content moderation, other operations utilize the “comments” section of posts to discuss or explicitly state a listed minor’s age. 

Another tactic involves the use of innovative keywords, which are hard to detect without specialized knowledge:


Trust & Safety teams should be cognizant of language diversity in order to collate keywords across dialects and identify linguistic phrases that may double as relevant euphemisms. This is an important tactic for those arranging child marriages to avoid on-platform detection. The rate at which these keywords rapidly evolve not only makes it more challenging for Trust & Safety teams to detect, but moderation also becomes harder to sustain. 

One frequently detected trend involves the promotion of keywords that exploit socio-religious Middle Eastern terms. These keywords are used in connection with both prostitution and child marriage. 

One such keyword group involves the term “temporary marriage” – the practice of which was historically religiously sanctioned. These temporary marriages materialize without a written marriage contract for a limited length of time, ranging from hours to years. Threat actors engaged in online child marriage reference the practice of ‘temporary marriage’ in their online activity as a mechanism for evading content detection.

Principal Arabic-language keywords which translate to “temporary marriage” are utilized by threat actors in the Middle East to conduct online child marriage. These include:  

  • صیغه (“sigheh” marriage) (“temporary marriage”).  Derived from the Shi’a Islamic tradition, this term was traditionally employed to refer to temporary marriages that permitted men to marry women for a predetermined length of time, without consequences of a divorce if the marriage ended. It is now used by threat actors in Iran as a cover for commercial sex work, where it is further used to arrange sex with minors.
  • نكاح المتعة (“nikkah mu’tah”) (“temporary marriage”). This is the Arabic term for sigheh marriage.

نکاح المسيار (“nikkah misyar”) (“temporary marriage”). Traditionally derived from the Sunni Islamic tradition, the term was originally used to refer to non-binding “pleasure marriages,” often directed toward widows who were seeking a partner. It is also synonymous with a “traveler marriage,” which legitimized sexual or polygamous relations for nomads or men traveling for work. It is now employed by some threat actors to arrange child marriages.


The exploitative activity of child marriage is often masked by a diverse range of sophisticated circumvention techniques that propagate harm. These include socio-religious keywords, euphemisms, and phrases recognizable only to the trained eye. To mitigate these harms, Trust & Safety teams must take proactive measures to prevent the exploitation of minors. 

In doing so, Trust & Safety teams should take the following actionable items: 

  • Gather off-platform intelligence concerning geographic social trends to contextualize human rights abuses and predict how they may manifest online.
  • Embrace language diversity to collate keywords across dialects and understand linguistic phrases that may double as euphemisms for illicit activity.
  • Identify online behavioral patterns utilized by threat actors and preempt the ways in which they can be mirrored in different contexts.
  • Proactively lead investigations that predict threat actors’ activity as technology develops and enhances.
  • Monitor relevant legislative developments and their relationship to cultural practices.

ActiveFence’s specialized knowledge of the human exploitation threat landscape and advanced research capabilities can provide new insights into emerging trends related to child marriage, allowing platforms to take proactive measures to prevent the abuse from impacting their services and their users. 

Click below to learn about our threat intelligence offering.

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