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Time’s Up on Child Marriages in the U.S.

Child marriage is still legal in the majority of the U.S., and this must change.

This post was co-written by Mellissa Withers and Alyssa Kyle

Beginning at the age of eight, Sherry Johnson was continually raped by various members of the church that she and her mother belonged to. At only 10 years old, she found out that she was pregnant. A month after she gave birth at age 11, she was forced by her mother to marry her 20-year-old rapist in order to avoid any legal inquiries or criminal charges against her or the church leadership. Sherry finally divorced him at age 19, but by then she had borne five more children by him.

Many people don’t know that child marriage still happens in the United States. Some think that child marriage in the US only occurs in rural areas and in conservative, religious households. While this was historically the case, nowadays child marriage occurs all across the demographic spectrum, although in most cases the victims are girls. An estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were married between 2000 and 2010 in the US.

Child marriage is a violation of article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” In 2016, the U.S. Department of State published a document which expressed child marriage in other countries to be a denial of human rights, yet it remains legal in the majority of the US. The United Nations has defined child marriage as “an appalling violation of human rights,” because no one is mature enough to consent to marriage before age 18. Child marriage is considered to be the most common form of sexual exploitation of girls. The UN Sustainable Development Goals call for the elimination of child marriage before the year 2030, and progress toward this goal is measured by estimating the proportion of women aged 20–24 who were married before age 18.

Like in Sherry’s case, the marriage of a child who is being sexually abused is possible due to the existence of child marriage laws which permit the marriage of minors with parental consent and/or judicial approval. Since 2010, there has been a slight decline in the number of annual documented child marriages, however only 38 states record child marriage data. Many states do not even record data, including California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Maine, Washington D.C., and Oklahoma. Over the past three years, several states have successfully changed legislation in order to create further limitations on child marriage laws (Florida, Virginia, New York, Texas, Connecticut, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, and California). Only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, have completely outlawed child marriage. There are 18 states that do not have any minimum age requirements for marriage, 17 states that require both parties to be at least 16 years-old, and six states that require individuals to be at least 17 years old. Surprisingly, in some of the states with the highest rates of child marriage—Idaho, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah, Mississippi—the age at which an individual can get married is lower than the age of legal consent to sexual relations.

Religious tradition remains a contributing factor to child marriage rates, yet other, often darker, reasons fuel them. Child marriage is often used to prevent young, pregnant girls from having children outside of wedlock, which, along with abortion, are socially unacceptable in certain communities. Additionally, child marriage is often used to cover up rape when the girl becomes impregnated by her rapist. Seven states in the US lower their legally-established age floor if the female is pregnant. This exception helps cover up rape and perpetuate violence. Once the marriage occurs, it is nearly impossible to prove a rape prior to marriage, especially when the conjugality can be used as evidence that the female consented to the pregnancy and marriage at the time.

Many of the girls who are married as children experience long-term physical and sexual abuse. The age differential between the girl and her husband often gives the male the ability to dominate and control their younger, vulnerable wives. Child brides often experience a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes. Young girls and young women are at much higher risk of maternal and infant deaths, compared to women who have children after age 20. They also have higher rates of sexually-transmitted infections. In comparison to women who first married as adults, research has found those who first married as a child have a higher likelihood of suffering from psychiatric disorders throughout their lifetime, such as depression, addictions, phobias, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder. These women also have extreme difficulties leaving the marriage, because of the lack of access to lawyers, shelters, and counseling. Due to their age, minors cannot file any type of legal action, including divorce. Without access to these resources, it is nearly impossible to get help.

Child marriage should also be recognized as a form of human trafficking. The Trafficking Protocol of 2000, an international protocol joined by the United States in December of 2000, defines trafficking as “the recruitment… transfer… or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation.” This definition can be applied to child marriage because the child is being transferred from an adult (parent/guardian) to another adult (husband) and often ends up being mistreated and sexually abused. The protocol criminalizes trafficking acts, with no exceptions for religious traditions and practices. This includes whether the minor consented or not. Child marriage fits these parameters and should be criminalized. Our children deserve better. Child marriage must be prohibited by law in all states.

Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program.

Alyssa Kyle is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

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