Mention child marriages and images of adolescent girls with middle-aged men sporting beards and wearing long traditional robes is what springs to mind for most people. It’s a practise largely attributed to Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, as if people in the West are no longer involved in such habits.
But contrary to widespread perceptions, child marriages are still prevalent in the United States as well. Even though the US government vehemently criticises other countries for their records of child marriages — a US State Department document describing it as a "human rights abuse that contributes to economic hardship," for instance — the numbers are quite shocking within US borders.
More than 167,000 children below the age of 17 have taken marital vows in 38 American states between 2000 and 2010, according to a report compiled by Unchained at Last, a non-profit organisation based in New Jersey.
Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, was herself a victim of a forced marriage. At age 19, her parents arranged a marriage for her, which turned out to be abusive in the first week.
“I was trapped for 15 years,” she said in a recent podcast interview with the independent website, Tap into Westfield. “When I finally managed to escape, my family shunned me saying our daughter is dead.”
Sherry Johnson is another former victim of child marriage. She was forced to marry her rapist, a member of her church, when she was just 11. A few years ago, she escaped her abuser and is now fighting to set a minimum age for marriage in Florida. Like in half of the US states, Florida has no marital age bar, and one child still gets married in the state every few days.
What does child marriage in the US look like?
The minimum age of marriage, according to US law, is 18. There is a legal gray zone, however — every state allows marriages of children below 18 with parental or judicial consent.
The underage marriages are happening in families practising various faiths: Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism and Buddhism.
Parents force their underage children to marry for various reasons. The main ones are: to control their sexuality; to protect the family “honour”; to protect perceived religious ideals. In many cases the motive is economic. Many of the children are married either for money or to someone living in a big city.
LEGALISING STATUTORY RAPE
Most of the marriages happen between underage girls and adult men. Though the sexual contact between them violates statutory rape laws, the marriage is still considered valid from a legal perspective.
REPUBLICANS REJECT BANS
After years of public outcry, New Jersey was supposed to be the first state to ban underage marriages but Governor Chris Christie vetoed the legislation in early May 2017. Christie argued that the proposed legislation did not “comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state.”
About 90 percent of married children in New Jersey are girls, a figure on par with global trends.
Similarly, the Republican-led House in New Hampshire rejected a bill in March 2017 that called for raising the marriage bar to 18 and ending child marriages.
HIGH DIVORCE RATE
Half of adolescent marriages in the US end up in divorce, according to a study. Apart from affecting girls' health, education and economic mobility, the underage married girls are at constant risk of experiencing domestic violence.
The public outcry and social activism has pushed eleven states to consider banning underage marriage. The state lawmakers who resist the legislation to end child marriage generally either believe that any legal measure could hamper religious freedom or they consider marriage as a better solution to teenage pregnancy than abortion.
LEGAL ACROSS THE US
Virginia is the only state where the legislation to ban child marriages has been passed. Even in progressive states like New York, little has been done to resolve the problem. A bill to end child marriage was introduced in the New York senate in February, seeking strict penalties against marriages involving under 17-year-olds. A month later, a new bill was introduced with a clause that allowed underage marriages with judicial approval, which was unanimously passed.
There is no legislation to raise the marriageable age bar or to ban child marriages in the other 38 states of the US.