Leave us kids alone: A look at child marriage in the US and beyond

A young actress plays the role of Giorgia, 10, forced to marry Paolo, 47, during an event organised by Amnesty International to denounce child marriage. More than 12m girls worldwide are married before the age of 18. Picture: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

While the global trend in forced marriage and child brides has seen numbers fall in recent years, the picture emerging from America is more disturbing, writes Bette Browne

More than 12m girls around the world, some not even teenagers, are married before the age of 18.

There were at least 207,468 such marriages in the States between 2000 and 2015, or an average of almost 40 a day.

Child marriage, defined as any formal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are under 18, is banned outright in only two US states.

But now a number of states have been galvanised into action to try to halt the practice.

While on a global scale the US figures may not seem that alarming, you have to take into account that America is overall a wealthy country, whereas most child marriages in developing countries are entered into due to severe economic hardship.

But the numbers emerging in recent years tell a different story, highlighted by research undertaken by groups such as Unchained At Last, Child USA, and Girls not Brides, and have sparked growing calls for action.

In almost all states, the age for marriage without parental consent is 18 but there is no federal law governing it so each state has its own laws.

Nearly every state technically prohibits people younger than 18 from marrying but each of these jurisdictions has exceptions to these laws,” according to the Pew Research Center.

In 36 of the 50 states, the age of marriage for minors with parental consent is 16, but in some states the minimum is even younger if there is both judicial and parental consent. So, in effect, a child of any age could be married in such states.

Three 10-year-old girls were married to men in their 30s in Tennessee in 2001. An 11-year-old boy married a 27-year-old woman in the same state in 2006. But earlier this year the governor banned such marriages when he signed legislation prohibiting the marriage of minors under the age of 17.

“Perhaps the most concerning aspect of child marriage laws in the Unites States is that in 23, or approximately half, of the states, there is no minimum age for marriage with parental and judicial consent. This is known as not having a ‘floor’ for marriage, or no bottom limit,” said Child USA, which conducts legal, medical, and social science research to identify laws and policies affecting child protection.

“This means that if both parents and a judge sign off on a marriage, a child of any age can be married in that state. This lack of a ‘floor’ for marriage puts children at risk of sex abuse.”

Rates of underage marriage are high in southern, rural states with a high prevalence of poverty and religious conservatism, as well as among Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs, and Hmong people from Southeast Asia, says campaign group Unchained At Last.

Fraidy Reiss: Survivor of arranged marriage and founder of Unchained at Last.

The Pew Research Center says child marriage is most common in West Virginia and Texas, where about seven of every 1,000 15- to 17-year-olds were married in 2014.

Several other states in the South and the West, including Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Nevada, and California, also have above-average rates of such unions. In Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina, children as young as 12 years old have been granted marriage licences.

This puts children, most often young girls, at risk of sex abuse, critics say, because, in many instances of child marriage, the parents are the ones who are insisting on the marriage or, in some cases, forcing their child to marry for social, cultural, religious, or financial reasons.

Child marriage survivors often say they were forced to marry against their will, particularly if they were pregnant, to avoid the stigma of giving birth outside marriage.

A survey by the Tahirih Justice Center, a legal defence organisation that protects women and girls fleeing violence, found forced marriage is a real problem in the US today, with as many as 3,000 known and suspected cases identified in recent years.

“The fact that potentially thousands of young women and girls from immigrant communities may face forced marriages each year in the United States is alarming and demands attention,” said the Tahirih Justice Center.

An increasing number of forced marriage cases involve young women and girls — some as young as 13 — from traditional immigrant communities in the United States. By force, fraud, or coercion, they were being compelled to marry men from their families’ countries or regions of origin.

In New Jersey, for example, a girl was only 12 when her father sought to have her married after taking her to live in Saudi Arabia. Then there was the similar case of Lina, who was born in Yemen, but raised in Modesto, California.

During a school holiday break, her father took her to Yemen for what he said was a visit to her sick grandmother. Not long after her arrival, he introduced her to the man she would have to marry.

She tried to avoid the marriage but she found everyone was powerless to help, including the US government, which found itself bound by local laws.

Only nine states have specific criminal statutes on forced marriage and no prosecutions have occurred, according to the Tahirih Justice Center.

In all states, however, people who force someone to marry may be charged with violating state laws, including those against domestic violence, child abuse, rape, assault, kidnapping, threats of violence, stalking, or coercion. Child marriage was a problem Americans had believed only existed in developing countries but the numbers told a different story and research by groups such as Unchained At Last and Child USA have galvanised states into action.

Delaware became the first state in May to ban child marriage, setting the minimum marriage age at 18. Previously, a minor in that state could get married at any age with a judge’s approval.

Other states followed suit and now more than 20 have now introduced legislation to raise the minimum marriage age.

Florida raised it to 17 in March. In May, Tennessee passed a similar ban, and the same month, New Hampshire passed a bill to raise the marriage age from 13 for girls and 14 for boys to 16 for both genders.

Maryland considered but failed to vote on a bill this year to tighten up its law, which allows 15-year-olds if pregnant, to marry with parental consent. State lawmakers hope to pursue the issue in January.

Missouri had the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to marry, with only one parent’s signature required. But in July it outlawed marriage for anyone under 16.

In New Jersey, where nearly 3,500 children married between 1995 and 2012, a child marriage ban bill was signed into law in June, setting a minimum age of 18 with no exceptions.

This makes New Jersey the second state to completely ban child marriage, after Delaware. Last year New York banned children under 17 from marrying. Previously minors as young as 14 were allowed to wed under state law providing they obtained parental and court permission.

But opposition to changing the laws can be strong in some states. It was a long battle to see change in New Jersey, for example. The measure that became law this year had passed both chambers of the legislature back in 2017 but was halted by then Republican governor Chris Christie, who refused to sign the proposal into law because he said a complete ban on child marriage would “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions”.

Yemeni former child-bride Nujud Mohammed Ali participates in a demonstration to support proposed legislation banning the marriage of girls under 17, outside the parliament in the capital Sa’naa. Ali was granted a divorce in 2008 at the age of eight after her unemployed father forced her into an arranged marriage with a man 20 years her senior.

Child marriage is also a controversial issue in other, less developed, countries. In over 50% of countries, across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Europe, there are no

minimum ages to get married and there are laws that allow exceptions to marriage laws.

In recent years, many countries in the EU have tightened their marriage laws, either banning marriage under 18 completely or requiring judicial approval for such marriages.

Countries that have reformed their marriage laws include Sweden (2014), Denmark (2017), Germany (2017), Luxembourg (2014), and Spain (2015).

In Ireland, the minimum age for marriage is 18 years and any person under 18 must seek an exemption from the Circuit Family Court or the High Court before they can enter into a marriage.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland teenagers can marry at 16 with parental consent. In Scotland, they do not need consent.

Every year, millions of girls across the globe are either encouraged or forced to marry men, sometimes two or three times their age, due to cultural and religious reasons or because of extreme poverty.

Parents may believe early marriage is in their daughter’s best interest, especially if she’s pregnant. But in all cases, girls who marry before age 18 are harmed for life,” Unicef stresses.

Yet, every US state except Delaware and New Jersey allows people under the age of 18 to marry once they’ve obtained some combination of a judge’s order, parental permission, premarital counseling or proof of pregnancy.

“The risks are just as real for child marriages in the US as they are in developing countries,” says Mark Engman, Unicef managing director, public policy and advocacy. “For the sake of protecting children from abuse and protecting their futures, every single US state must take legislative steps to ban child marriage.

“It’s important to have legislation on child marriage on the books, but the law in and of itself is not going to change people’s minds.

“We have to convince people that stopping child marriage is the right thing to do.”

Advocates campaigning to set the minimum marriage age at 18, with no exceptions, say it is extremely difficult for minors in an abusive marriage to get help. In some states, minors cannot access a domestic violence shelter or apply for a protective order without the help of an adult.

“When somebody aged 17 or younger calls us, there is almost nothing we can do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway,” says Fraidy Reiss, director of Unchained At Last.

Gaps in state laws are failing to protect minors from being forced or coerced into marriages where they may face violence and sexual assault.

Yet some lawmakers and others on both sides of the political spectrum have voiced reluctance to completely ban marriage for all minors. Some minors, they say, should be allowed to marry under certain circumstances.

Opposition to setting a legal age often gets caught up, too, in the politics of abortion.

In Delaware, during a debate on the under-18 ban, at least one representative said he believed more teenage girls would get abortions if they weren’t allowed to marry.

In some states, such as California, opposition has come from civil liberty groups. The American Civil Liberties Union of California argued that banning marriage before 18 “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental right of marriage.”

Boys are sometimes married as children, although according to Unicef, “girls are disproportionately the most affected”, with child marriage five times more common among girls than boys. Child marriage has lasting consequences for girls, from their health, education and social development perspectives.

While the movement to end child marriage in the US is undoubtedly growing, there is still a long way to go until the issue is addressed in all states. But 2019 will see the campaign intensifying.

Officials in Pennsylvania, for example, are reviewing legislation that could be proposed early next year that would make that state the third in the country to ban child marriages, with no exceptions.

Changes also look likely in Ohio, where pregnant girls of any age can marry with parental and court permission, as well as in Wyoming, Washington, Utah, and Georgia.

“The number of children married each year in the US is decreasing,” Unchained At Last says, “but it will not reach zero until every state passes laws to end child marriage.”

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