While stories of child marriage are commonly associated with the Global South, lesser known are the cases closer to home: in the United States.
Across the world, child marriage has persisted and the United States is no exception. Across all 50 states in the North American nation, marriage before the age of 18 has remained legal.
“These are old laws that were just never changed because people didn’t realize this was happening,” said Fraidy Reiss, the Executive Director of Unchained at Last, an organization fighting to end child marriage in the U.S.
Based on available data, Unchained at Last estimates that over quarter of a million children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. Data shows girls as young as 12 years old married in states like Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
The Tahirih Justice Center, which helps protect women and girls from gender-based violence, found that Texas has the second highest rates of child marriages in the nation, as nearly 40,000 children under the age of 18 were married between 2000 and 2014.
The majority of those wedded at a young age are girls, and approximately 77 percent of U.S. children who were wed were married to adult men, often with significant age differences.
Such cases often cut across various religions, ethnic backgrounds, and circumstances, from one 15-year-old whose Muslim family forced her to marry a 23-year-old man because she was found dating someone of a different background in Nevada to a girl’s Christian community in Colorado pressuring her to get married because she was pregnant.
“I think it’s absolutely shocking,” Human Rights Watch’s Senior Researcher in the Women’s Rights Division Heather Barr told IPS, noting that child marriage is an issue on every continent with similar consequences.
“The harm that happens to a child that gets married in New York state is not that different from the harm that happens to a child getting married in the Central African Republic,” she said.
Child marriage is strongly linked to high rates of school dropouts and poverty, and those married before the age of 18 are three times more likely to experience domestic violence than those married at 21 or older.
Women and girls married at a young age also often experience physical and mental health problems, including higher rates of maternal mortality and sexually transmitted infections.
Reiss told IPS how forced marriage takes a toll on the mental health of girls as many turn to suicide. Others just give up and continue with the marriage because of the lack of options.
“They know that going along with a marriage means that they are going to be raped on their wedding night and raped thereafter, they are going to pulled out of school—all their dreams for their future are gone,” she said.
Though the minimum age is 18, most states allow those younger than 18 to marry with parental or judicial consent. However, both Reiss and Barr told IPS that such ideas of consent are problematic and “ridiculous.”
“Child marriages are very often arranged or forced by parents, so in a situation where it is actually the parents who are forcing a child to get married, parental consent is completely meaningless,” said Barr.
As for judicial consent, the law does not specify any criteria that a judge is required to consider before approving a marriage.
In 27 states, laws do not specify any age below which a child cannot marry.
“The minimum age for marriage is effectively lowered to zero,” said Reiss.
There has been a push in recent years to end child marriage domestically.
In May, Texas’ legislature passed a bill that identifies 18 as the legal age to marriage. Though it allows those younger than 18 to marry, they can only do so if a judge has found that they live on their own and are no longer dependent on guardians to support themselves. It is currently awaiting signature from the state’s governor Greg Abbott in order to go into full effect.
In New York, the Senate passed a bill on child marriage which must now be approved by the state’s Assembly. The bill, which is expected to pass, raises the minimum marriage age from 14 to 17.
While Barr was hopeful that it will pass, Reiss criticised the bill noting that 17-year-olds are still children.
“This notion of allowing 17-year-olds to marry because legislators assuming that it is somehow less reprehensible than a 7-year-old getting married—it’s not,” she told IPS.
Such issues with legislatures are also happening elsewhere as states continue to push back on ending child marriage.
In March, New Hampshire rejected a bill to increase the age of marriage to 18 on the grounds that it would hurt pregnant teenagers and young military members, leaving the minimum age at 13.
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that banned marriage under the age of 18 on the ground that it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state.”
Both Reiss and Barr condemned the move, noting that child marriage has nothing to do with religion.
“This isn’t an issue about tradition, it’s an issue about human rights,” Barr told IPS.
She added that it is hypocritical that the U.S. as a donor nation criticises other countries when they themselves have weak protections against child marriage.
“It really undermines their credibility…we think that reform on this issue in the U.S. and other countries in the West that are donor countries can help support the global effort as well,” Barr said. [ Courtesy IPS]
In 2016, The U.S Department of State called child marriage a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood.”
“It’s an uphill battle,” Reiss added, highlighting the urgency for states to end child marriage.
According to Girls Not Brides, 1.5 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year. If such trends continue, the number of women married as children will reach 1.2 billion by 2050.
Among the targets of the internationally agreed 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to eliminate all harmful practices including child, early, and forced marriage.