Justice

The Child Marriage Problem The U.S. Doesn't Know It Has

October 22nd 2015

By:
Diana Crandall

“Child marriage” is not a commonly-used phrase in America. It’s generally known that the minimum age for marriage in most states in 18, though there are amendments made to the law that allow some teenagers to marry at 16 or 17, so long as they have parental consent.

Statutory rape is more likely to be brought up in conversation than child marriage. After all, how can a child be legally married if he or she hasn’t reached the age of consent?

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It’s a paradox that’s occurring right now in the U.S., and no one seems to talk — or know — about it. The New York Times reported earlier this month that thousands of children under the age of 18 have been recently married, including at least one case where a 10-year-old boy was legally wed.

How it's legal.

How is it possible that a fourth-grader can obtain a legal marriage license in the U.S.? The answer is simple: Take parental consent, combine with the approval of a judge, and the marriage is valid.

But "valid" doesn't equate "consensual." The author of the New York Times article, Fraidy Reiss, is also the founder of a nonprofit called Unchained at Last that helps women escape from arranged or forced marriages. (ATTN: reached out to Reiss, but was unable to reach her by the time of publication.) Recently, the organization retrieved New Jersey health department data on ages of the state’s recently married couples. Unfortunately, Reiss reports, other demographic information, apart from age, was not made available to the organization, but what they did find is troubling.

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In New Jersey, 16- and 17-year-olds have to receive parental consent to get married, but children who are under 15 have to seek judicial approval from a probate court before they say their vows.

Retrieved data shows 3,499 children were married between the years 1995 and 2012 in New Jersey. Most were 16 or 17, and so they needed parental consent. But the numbers show that 178 were between the ages of 10 and 15, which means that parents, as well as a judge, approved their "requests."

Forced marriage is real.

"Based on my own experience working with forced-marriage victims across the United States, I am sure many of these children had to marry against their will," Reiss wrote. "Forced marriage is a widespread but often ignored problem in the United States."

Of those numbers, the organization reports that 91 percent of children were married to adults with age gaps large enough to call for statutory rape charges. Examples that Reiss gives include the 2006 approval of a 10-year-old boy to an 18-year-old woman. In 1996, a judge permitted a 12-year-old girl to marry a 25-year-old man.

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According to the World Policy Analysis Center, girls are disproportionately affected by forced child marriages, which can have catastrophic consequences for their mental and physical well-being.

These territories are addressing the problem.

The Tahirih Justice Center, an organization created to advocate for and protect immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, reports that there are only 10 states that specifically address forcing someone into marriage in certain circumstances. Still, the organization believes that “these laws seem designed for other purposes than to prevent parents from, or to punish parents for, forcing their children into marriage.”

The states and territories are as follows:

  • California
  • The District of Columbia
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma
  • Virginia
  • Virgin Islands
  • West Virginia