Child marriage isn’t just something that happens in religious ceremonies abroad. It’s alive and well in the good ol’ U.S.A., land of the free — except when you’re a not-so-free 16-year-old changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, and being raped by a man who is likely more than two decades older than you.
Child marriage probably isn’t something you think about much, if at all. In fact, you likely assume that, here in America, you have to be a fully legal eighteen years old to get married. You’re consenting to a legal contract, after all. But unfortunately — and to the detriments of hundreds of thousands of girls — that’s far from the case.
Child marriage is a serious issue in America. Between 2000 and 2010, advocacy organization Unchained At Last estimates that 248,000 children were married in America. That’s a quarter of a million kids, 85% of whom were girls. And they weren’t marrying their high school sweethearts, folks.
78% were young girls tying the knot with adult men. Some of the couples, Unchained at Last says, were so far apart that their unions would constitute statutory rape if they weren’t prettied up and legalized on paper.
State laws vary. But according to the Tahirih Justice Center, fully 27 states — more than half — have no bottom age floor for marriage (though some may set one through case law). Other state laws range from allowing marriage at age 17 all the way down to permitting it between 14-year-old boys and 13-year-old girls.
Yes, you read that right.
State law may require parental consent, a judge’s consent, or even just a clerk’s consent. Only Virginia requires participants to be 18-years-old or emancipated minors of 16 or 17 years. This is as progressive as America gets. Meanwhile, according to Unchained at Last, in the years between 2000 and 2010, twelve-year-olds got hitched in the great states of South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alaska.
Twelve. Years. Old.
While each story is different, many go like this: Anna Jones (not her real name) was 16 when she met Tim at a mental health facility. She was a patient. He was a mental healthcare technician, she tells Good Housekeeping. He was also 29 years old. He started flirting with her at first, “in small, inconspicuous ways.” The flirting escalated until, the day she left, he sent her a note saying, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to live without seeing you again.”
He began to call her house. Then he began to spend the night, which her mom allowed. They tied the knot, with her mother’s consent, on the condition that she would finish her sophomore year of high school and not live with Tim until the next summer. But the morning after the wedding, Anna ran off with her new husband — and she was trapped. School wouldn’t let her enroll, because they thought she was pregnant(a whole different, enraging issue), and she couldn’t get papers to get her GED because she and her mother were no longer speaking to each other. She was pregnant before her eighteenth birthday, and her husband became physically abusive. She eventually escaped the dangerous relationship, but at the expense of custody of her daughter, of whom Tim retained full custody.
Anna’s story is typical of child brides in many ways. Unchained at Last notes that girls who marry before 19 are 50% more likely to drop out of high school than their counterparts, and often unable to “access work or educational opportunities,” because they tend to have more kids closer together. Moreover, girls married before 18 are three times more likely to be physically abused than women who marry after age 21.
But it’s often not complicit teens who get married. The New York Times tells the story of Sherry Johnson, who was forced to marry her 20-year-old rapist when she became pregnant — at the tender age of eleven. The marriage didn’t last, though Johnson was forced into having nine children. She is now campaigning for Florida to ban child marriages, which currently has no minimum age for marriage. Another child bride, Lyndsy Duet, told The NYT she was forced, at 17, to marry the man who began raping her at the age of 14. Her marriage, like Anna Jones’s, was violent, though she eventually escaped.
You’d think that everyone would be on board with ending child marriage in America, but shockingly, that’s not the case. The New York Times reports that Girl Scout Cassandra Levesque attempted an initiative to pass a law raising New Hampshire’s marriage age to 18, only to have the Republican-controlled House kill the bill.
“We’re asking the Legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project,” said state representative David Bates. New Jersey recently passed a law banning marriage for people under 18, but Governor Chris Christie killed the bill. According to The Indepedent, he said it would “conflict with religious customs.”
Lawmakers are refusing to see that child marriage destroys lives, and often forces children into highly abusive situations. The Indepedent reports that three 10-year-olds were married in Texas in 2001 — to 24-, 25-, and 31-year-olds. Normally, we call that pedophilia. But in at least 27 states in America, it could be just another day in the court clerk’s office. And if we’re to call ourselves a decent country, one that protects the innocent, that’s something that has to change. Right now.