Spain announced Friday it is raising the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16 while opening consultations to increase the age for consent to sex, which now lies at just 13, so as to combat child abuse.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's right-leaning government announced its decision to raise the minimum ages for marriage and sex in Spain, which are now among the lowest in the world, after a weekly cabinet meeting.
The reforms are part of a broad plan approved by the government to protect children from abuse and exploitation, to be funded with a budget estimated at 5.2 billion euros ($6.7 billion) over the next four years.
Spanish legislation allows a child to enter into marriage with a court's permission as young as 14. Defenders of children's rights fear that at such a young age some minors, even if only a small number, may be forced into unions.
"Although the age to enter into marriage in our country is 18 years, the law does allow in certain circumstances for marriage at 14. We are going to raise that age to 16," Social Services Minister Ana Mato told a news conference.
"We also propose to raise the age of sexual consent, which is now 13 years, the lowest among countries in our region, so as to avoid adults abusing minors and to fight more effectively against paedophilia," she said.
To set a new age limit for sexual relations, the Spanish government said it would open a period of consultations with political parties and children's organisations.
The Spanish office of the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, hailed the reforms.
"We welcome the measures that raise the age of marriage and the revision to the age of sexual consent," said Gabriel Gonzalez-Bueno, head of childhood policy at UNICEF Spain, in an online statement.
He praised, too, a decision to include a report on the impact on children of all planned legislation and regulations, a measure for which he said UNICEF Spain had long campaigned.
The Spanish child protection plan also aims to battle child poverty, as the country suffers a recession that has left 26 percent of the workforce out of a job, with 1.83 million households in which every potential worker is unemployed.
The economic crisis has left many people unable to afford rent and mortgages, leading tens of thousands of families to lose their homes.
UNICEF's Gonzalez-Bueno said the plan lacked sufficient focus on the impact of the crisis on children and their families.
"The economic context and budget context affects the success of many aspects of the plan," he said.
In line with the recommendations of the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Spanish government also revised the drinking age to 18 across the country.
In most Spanish regions the minimum age for consumption of alcohol was already 18 but in the northern region of Asturias it was just 16.