Combating America’s child marriage problem.
Several months ago, we wrote about an eye-opening social experiment that shocked Americans and tourists in New York City’s Times Square by faking the photoshoot of a child marriage. The silent and clearly underage bride sulked behind her much older and foreign-acting husband as onlookers reacted by asking the girl where her parents were, confronting the husband and calling him a pervert, or by casting quiet looks of disgust.
Now, several states are taking a stand against the United States’s confusing laws around child marriage, putting an end to the antiquated system that endangers (primarily female) children, even when their parents, guardians, and local legal systems have forsaken them.
Didn’t think child marriage was a problem in the USA? Think again.
Child marriage has existed as long as the concept of marriage itself, deriving largely from the shorter lifespans of the past, outdated societal norms and gender roles, the economic needs of lower and middle class families, and the need for noble families to produce heirs and sustain familial lines.
Yet, in the 21st century, much of the developed world has recognized the dangers and disadvantages involved in the outdated practice, especially for the girls involved. While one might assume that child marriage isn’t a problem in the United States, the unsettling truth is that there are thousands of child or forced marriages performed across the country each year, and that only ten states (including Virginia) have laws specifically preventing and criminalizing these unions involving the coercion of a minor. In fact, while the legal age of marriage is 18 across most the country, each state has a slew of exceptions that allow children as young as 12 to marry.
By looking at this map, you’ll see that child marriage laws in the United States align us more closely with Niger and other African nations than with Western Europe, Asia, or Australia. And while the map, made by the World Policy Center, denotes America as having a minimum age of 14–15 for consensual marriages, the truth is that children as young as 13 and 12 can be married with the consent of their parents or with permission from a judge.
“We think we’re so sophisticated, so progressive and ahead of the times, and yet we still see this barbaric behavior,” said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D) of New York, who is helping sponsor a bill that would entirely proscribe marriage to anyone under 18.
In neighboring New Jersey, at least 3,481 child marriages took place between 1995 and 2012, and 163 of them involved a child younger than 15 years of age, meaning a judge had to approve the union. Children who marry young are more likely to have children early on, four times less likely to go to college, and half as likely to finish high school as their peers. In many cases, their childhood is taken away from them in unions that critics say are actually human trafficking and statutory rape disguised as marriage.
“The common assumption we are seeing is the belief that child marriages don’t happen that often – and when they do, it’s believed they are Romeo-and-Juliet-aged peers, which is not what we are seeing happen here,” said Jeanne Smoot, a senior policy counsel for the Tahirih Justice Center. In New Jersey, 91% of the aforementioned child marriages were between a child and an adult.