We Have An Epidemic Of Child Marriages In The United States. Seriously.

April 12, 2021

By Deepti Govind

If you thought child marriage was a problem that only developing countries faced, think again. It is an equally real, and worrisome, problem in the U.S. too.

Read this: Nearly 300,000 minors, under age 18, were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, a study by the organization Unchained At Last published this month found. Between 2000 and 2018, 232,474 children were married based on actual data, plus another 64,559 based on estimates. A few were as young as 10, though nearly all (around 96%) were age 16 or 17.

Most were girls wed to adult men an average of four years older, the study found. Whereas, when boys were married, the average spousal age difference was less than half of the age difference for girls, at 1.5 years. Some 60,000 marriages since 2000 occurred at an age or spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime.

Unlike in countries where child marriage is illegal but persists anyway, the problem in the U.S. is the laws themselves. Most U.S. states still allow marriage before 18, and the four states that banned it did so only in the last three years. Several states allow teenagers as young as 16 to marry with parental consent, according to an article on the Cornell Law School website. Some even allow children two years younger than that to marry.

Unchained was founded in 2011 by a forced marriage survivor, with a mission of providing free legal and social services to help individuals in the U.S. to escape forced marriages. When it was founded, child marriage was legal in all 50 states in the U.S. Ever since Unchained was created, the organization found that an increasing number of girls, under age 18, were reaching out to Unchained to plead for the same help that its own founder had needed as a child.

Alaska and North Carolina have the lowest minimum age for marriage set by statute, according to an article in WRAL.com: 14 years old. The article also talks of Sherry Johnson’s story. Johnson was married off by her mother when she was just 11 to her 20-year old rapist. She had been raped several times before her age even hit the double digits, and became pregnant at the age of 10 by a senior member of her church.

Lawyers cannot represent minors. But Johnson finally found an attorney who was willing to help her get her a divorce, which was finalized when she was only 17 years old, and had already given birth to six children. She is now an advocate for raising the age for child marriage with a focus on North Carolina, the WRAL.com article says.

Other anti-child marriage advocates in the U.S. have similar backgrounds that prompted them to take up for this cause. For instance, Dawn Tyree, who now works with organizations like Unchained, was also married when she was 13 and became pregnant. She was molested by a family friend, who became her husband after the pregnancy was discovered, according to an article in News Channel 10. By the time Tyree was 15, she was somehow raising herself and her two children. She also faced issues when it came to getting a divorce because she was only emancipated, and not a full adult.

Over the last five years, half of the states have enacted reforms to end or limit child marriage. North Carolina’s is being reconsidered now through House Bill 41 and Senate Bill 35 to raise the age to get married to 18. Researchers in North Carolina reviewed marriage license applications in 50 counties around the state over almost two decades, from 2000 to 2019. The researchers found more than 4,000 minors had applied to be married, the WRAL.com article adds.

Lawmakers in Kansas too are considering a proposal to raise the minimum age for marriage in the state to 18, according to an article by KSN in March 2021. The age of consent in the state is already 18, but a teenager can marry even at the age of 16 with parental consent. Children that are 15-years old can marry with judicial approval. Between the years 2000 and 2010, 2500 minors were married in the state.

While things appear to be improving, there are also cases that suggest a whole lot more has to be done. For example, a Brooklyn rabbi is under investigation for allegedly arranging marriages between children as young as 15 years old. This happened as recently as last month, according to a post on Jewish Exponent. In New York state, one must be 18 years old to marry, though a 17-year-old can marry with a court’s permission.

Rabbi Yoel Roth, and the school he runs, Yeshiva Tiferes Hatorah in Williamsburg, are now the subject of investigations by the New York Police Department and the Administration for Children’s Services, the Forward reported. Roth believes that boys should be married off at a young age to prevent them from masturbating, the article added. Former followers of Roth said he arranged marriages without permission from the parents of the bride and groom, and often does not allow parents to decide the date of the wedding, or even to know the age of their child’s future spouse.

Data Source: Unchained At Last’s April 2021 report on child marriage

Status Of Minimum Age For Marriage Globally

Of course, child marriage is not just an American problem.

Globally, around 21% of young women are married before their 18th birthday, the UNICEF says. A whopping 12 million girls under 18 are married off each year. If that’s not a shocking enough statistic, consider this: 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children, according to the UNICEF, based on data updated until March 2020. The practice is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, where 37% of young women are married before the age of 18.

A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that at least 117 countries allow children to marry, based on analysis of data on 198 countries and territories from the U.S. State Department and United Nations. Most countries (153 of 198) require that people who want to marry be adults, i.e. 18 years or older. But many of these same nations also have some kind of exemption to this requirement, the Pew Research study says.

For instance, in Australia, if a person is at least 18, with judicial approval their spouse can be as young as 16, the study adds. And in many other countries, such as Iraq, Jamaica and Uruguay, children can marry with parental permission. Sudan has the largest gender gap: Girls can marry at 10 and boys can marry at 15 or puberty without parental or judicial permission. And six countries do not specify a minimum age for marriage: Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The Pew Research list of minimum age across countries from the study can be found here.

Another important statistic to be noted is that for about one-in-five countries, there are different minimum age requirements for men and women. In 37 of these 38 countries, the minimum for girls is the lower of the two. Then there are religion-based differences in terms of minimum age requirement, the Pew Research study found. For example, in the Philippines, couples must be 21 to marry without permission, unless they are Muslim; Muslim boys can marry at 15 and Muslim girls can marry at puberty. And in Tanzania, Muslim and Hindu girls can marry at 12 as long as the marriage is not consummated until the girl reaches the age of 15.

Of the over two dozen countries that require one or both spouses be older than 18, roughly half of these nations (14 of 27) are in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, China requires men to be 22 and women to be 20 and, in Singapore, couples under the age of 21 must have special permission to wed. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi created a task force last year to examine a proposal to increase the age of marriage of women from 18 to 21, which would make it the same legal age for women to marry as it is currently for men.

Impact Of The Pandemic On Child Marriage

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million girls were expected to marry before their eighteenth birthday in the next decade. Now, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic, according to the UNICEF.

School closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage, the organization said. In the last ten years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15%, from nearly one-in-four to one-in-five, the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat, the UNICEF added in another press release.

Girls who marry in childhood face immediate and lifelong consequences, the release adds. They are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. Child marriage increases the risk of early and unplanned pregnancy, in turn, increasing the risk of maternal complications and mortality. The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their mental health and well-being.

“Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community support that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters to ease financial burdens,” the UNICEF said.

In East Africa’s Malawi, for instance, child marriage rates have almost doubled during the pandemic, according to a Telegraph report. From April to June this year, the national youth helpline recorded 669 child marriages, up by 83% on last year, according to its director, MacBain Mkandawire. His organization, Yoneco, runs the helpline on behalf of the government, Telegraph said.

Nepal has it extremely difficult too, at the moment, according to a New York Times report. Interlocking problems particular to the country make it tough for many young women to avoid early marriage, even though the legal marriage age is 20. Its economy relies on remittances and tourism, both of which the pandemic has devastated. In India also the pandemic led to a more than 33% increase in the number of child marriages between the months of June and October 2020 as compared with 2019, an RTI application to the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development showed, according to an article in The Wire.

Policymakers should be deeply concerned about child marriage – including at age 16 or 17 – for three main reasons, says the Unchained report from this month. The reasons are: Child marriage can easily be forced marriage, and doesn’t give the children getting married any legal rights they need to navigate through the contract of marriage. It is also a human rights abuse that destroys the lives of many American girls. Although, the study points out here that there’s much less known about the impact of child marriage on boys since most of the children who marry in the U.S. are girls, and the research is also focused on girls. Finally, the third reason to do away with child marriage according to the Unchained study is that it really undermines statutory rape laws. Sex with a child, which would be considered rape otherwise, becomes legal within the realms of child marriage in most states and under federal law.