Here’s the undeniably bad news: Child marriage continues to be a scourge in the United States.
But there is good news too: If we work together, we can eliminate the scourge by this time next year.
Shockingly, child marriage, or marriage before 18, remains legal in most of the U.S. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were legally married in the U.S. – and almost all were girls wed to adult men, according to research by Unchained At Last, the nonprofit I founded to combat forced and child marriage in the U.S.
I am a forced marriage survivor myself, and the main reason I am committed to ending child marriage in the U.S. is that it can too easily be forced. Children who have not yet reached the age of adulthood – which is 18 or higher in every state – simply do not have the legal rights necessary to escape an impending or existing forced marriage. They typically face overwhelming legal and practical barriers if they try to leave home, enter a domestic violence shelter, retain an attorney or even file for divorce.
While Unchained usually is able to help the adultsage 18 and older who reach out for help when they are about to be forced to marry or already have been, the outcomes for those under 18 in the same situation are often dire. When children reach out to Unchained and learn about their limited options, they typically despair and go along with a forced marriage, knowing that means they will be raped on their wedding night and thereafter, and knowing they probably will be pulled out of school and their dreams for their future will be destroyed. Many turn to suicide attempts and self-harm.
Whether or not child marriage is forced, its impacts on girls are devastating enough that the U.S. State Department has called marriage before 18 a “human rights abuse.” The repercussions are long-lasting and affect nearly every aspect of an American girl or woman’s life, including her education, economic opportunities, health, safety and overall quality of life.
Child brides in the U.S. are 50 percent less likely to finish high school and four times less likely ever to finish college. They are three times more likely to have five or more children, and 31 percent more likely to end up living in poverty. Because of the forfeited education, poverty and stress that come with child marriage, they also face a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes and stroke, and an increased risk of psychiatric disorders. Globally, child brides are three times more likely to be physically assaulted by their spouse.
Child marriage also undermines statutory rape laws. In many states, sex with a child that would otherwise be considered rape – in some cases, felony rape – becomes legal as soon as a marriage license is issued. Child marriage in those situations gives a “get out of jail free” card to child rapists.
In some countries that are seeking to end child marriage, the solution is neither obvious nor simple. They already have strong laws to prevent child marriage, but they struggle with changing cultural norms and getting parents and religious leaders to follow the laws.
In the U.S., child marriage has an obvious and simple solution. The problem in the U.S. is the laws themselves; indeed, the nearly a quarter-million children who married in the U.S. in the first decade of this century were married legally. The solution is for each state to update its outdated laws.
This is not a heavy lift. Most states already set 18 as the marriage age; however, their laws include loopholes, typically dating back many decades, under which children may marry. So every state needs merely to pass simple, commonsense legislation to eliminate the archaic and dangerous loopholes – the rare legislation that harms no one (except child rapists), costs nothing and saves children from a human rights abuse.
Unchained leads a growing national movement to pass this legislation in all 50 states. To date, the movement has succeeded in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota (and in American Samoa and U.S. Virgin Islands). Four down, 46 to go.
Let’s get the remaining 46. Please go to unchainedatlast.org to see how you can join the movement – and let’s end the scourge of child marriage in the U.S. by the end of 2021.
Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor and the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that works to end forced and child marriage in the United States through direct services and advocacy.
By now you can imagine how important Unchained At Last’s work is. Now imagine how much good they could do with even more support. Chipping in a small amount to FBB today will help give larger, game-changing grants to organizations like Unchained At Last in 2021.
Featured photo by Jen Kiaba
Exterior Massacusetts State legislature photo by Susan Landmann
Interior photo by UNICEF USA