- Nearly 300,000 children aged 17 and under were married in the United States from 2000 to 2018. Many were under age 14.
- At the federal level, child marriage is viewed as a valid defense to statutory rape. It functions as a loophole to avoid jail time.
- Child marriage has been deemed a “human rights abuse” by the State Department. Research shows that it contributes to long-term harm to girls.
Headlines are sprouting up everywhere about new court cases that may endanger Roe v Wade. But abortion is not the only issue that is critical to female control of their bodies. We tend to think about child marriages as something that happens in distant developing countries, but not in the U.S. Unfortunately, that is far from true.
In this country, there is no federal legislation regarding age of marriage, and states have the right to set their own standards, leading to tremendous state-by-state variation. Forty-five states in America continue to allow girls and boys under 18 to wed. Nine states have established no absolute minimum age for marriage. Girls as young as 10 are occasionally married legally in the United States. Nine states have established no absolute minimum age for marriage.
A 2021 study found that nearly 300,000 children — age 17 and under — were married in the United States from 2000 to 2018. An overwhelming majority were 16- or 17- year-old girls, on average marrying a man four years older. But more than 1,000 were 14 or younger, and five were only 10 years old.
According to World Population Review, “In most U.S. states, the minimum marriage age for minors that have parental consent ranges from 12 to 17 years old. California and Mississippi do not set minimum ages for minors to marry with parental consent. Massachusetts has the lowest minimum marriage ages with parental consent of 12 for girls and 14 for boys.”
Let’s consider the story of Patricia Abatemarco, now 55, who was married just after her 14th birthday to a man who was 27. “There was nothing romantic about it. I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t have a crush on him. I was afraid of him,” she told the New York Times. A judge in Florence, Ala., married the couple in the courthouse, and then the couple went to the park outside — where the new bride spotted a playground and left the groom to play on the jungle gym. According to her, the path to marriage began when she was 12 and living in a middle-class home. Her parents were secular, but she had become quite religious and during a personal crisis sought help from an evangelical Christian telephone hotline. A counselor, Mark, showed up and offered free counseling services; these became increasingly intense, she said, and he began to forcibly rape her repeatedly. At 13 she became pregnant, Mark and her mother favored marriage to solve the problem. For Abatemarco’s mother, it averted the stigma of an out-of-wedlock baby in the house, and for Mark it allowed him to dodge rape charges. Abatemarco desperately wanted to keep the baby, in hopes of having someone to love and comfort her, and her mom told her this was the only way she could do so. Mark soon began to beat her repeatedly, and she was finally, with the help of her horrified parents, able to divorce him, “on a school day, with enough time to catch her 11th-grade English class.”
As recently as 2017, Child marriage was allowed in some form in all 50 states. Five states have completely barred marriages by people under 18: Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and (just this month) Rhode Island. New York passed a similar law in August. “Child marriage is currently legal in 44 states (only Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have set the minimum age at 18 and eliminated all exceptions), and 20 U.S. states do not require any minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver, reports the Times.
Child marriage has been deemed a “human rights abuse” by the U.S. State Department. Research shows that it “can contribute to long-term harms to girls that can effectively end their childhood, including: inability to complete their education; economic hardship; increased risk of domestic violence; early pregnancy; damage to physical and mental health.”
However, there is a legal, but questionable, loophole. The advocacy group Equality Now reports, “Statutory rape is when one of the parties to sexual activity is below the age of consent. It does not have to be forcible, because a minor is not legally able to consent. Federal legislation deems it to be a crime to ‘knowingly engage in a sexual act with another person’ who is between the ages of 12 and 16 and is at least four years younger than the perpetrator. However, there is a catch. Legislation “allows a defense to this crime when the persons engaging in the sexual act were at that time married to each other. This “get-out-of-jail” card means that, at the federal level, child marriage is viewed as a valid defense to statutory rape.”
But at long last, change is in the air. In New York, reports The Hill, the bill that former governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law “eliminated the previous exception of allowing 17-year-olds to get married with the consent of parents and the courts.” The law took effect on August 21.
North Carolina is also undergoing transformation. The Associated Press noted that the state, “Known for its coastlines and mountains, has also developed a more dubious reputation recently: as a regional destination for adults who want to marry children.”
The state recently took action. In August, Governor Roy Cooper signed a bill outlawing the marriage of pregnant 14- and 15-year-olds and banning 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying someone who is four years older than they are. He told the Raleigh News and Observer, “This legislation is an important step toward ending child marriage in North Carolina and instituting more protections for children. While it falls short of raising the age of marriage to 18, it will make our state a safer place for children.”
But as the AP pointed out, “North Carolina still allows pregnant and parenting children to marry as young as 14 with a court order, sometimes in direct opposition to a state statutory rape law, which criminalizes sex with a person age 15 or under, with few exceptions.”
In the U.S., about 200,000 minors have married between 2000 and 2015. Of the 200,000 child marriages:
- 67% of the children were 17
- 29% of the children were 16
- 4% of the children were 15
- Less than 1% of children were 14 or under
- There were 51 cases of 13-year-olds getting married and 6 cases were of 12-year-olds
According to the Pew Research Center, child marriage is more common in the southern United States, including the states of West Virginia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina. California and Nevada have high incidences of child marriage as well.
Only five states have banned underage marriages without exception:
- New Jersey
- New York
This situation, however, still gets little attention with the media spotlight so intensely focused on the debate over Roe. Clearly, we need to pay more attention to a problem that primarily affects children.