Child marriage has increasingly become a growing concern in the U.S., leading children safety advocates to demand legislators enact laws against the practice.
However, 44 states have legalized – or done nothing to outlaw – child marriage while 20 do not require a minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver.
Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Minnesota and Delaware have set the minimum age for marriage at 18. In addition, lawmakers in each state have eliminated all exceptions to the statute.
The issue of child marriage came to the fore again this month when a Tennessee measure that failed to include a minimum age for marriage failed to advance primarily because Republican lawmakers wanted the law applied only to heterosexuals.
“Increased poverty, a higher chance of health issues and lesser educational attainment are the repercussions for these children,” stated Ashley Amor, co-founder of PeopleFindFast.
Amor noted that between 2000 and 2018, about 300,000 children were married in the U.S.
“The majority of the women were married to adult males, many of whom were much older,” Amor remarked.
The founder of GreatPeopleSearch, Leslie Radka, called child marriage dangerous and a violation of human rights that “legitimizes abuse and denies girls’ autonomy.”
“When young girls are forced to marry, they are essentially subjected to state-sanctioned rape and are at increased risk of domestic violence, forced pregnancy and negative health consequences, all while being denied education and economic opportunity,” Radka said. “Young girls typically lack agency when it comes to contraceptive use and their bodies are not prepared to give birth – pregnancy and childbirth complications are common among child brides and are sadly still the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide.”
According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage, girls under 18 are also more likely to contract HIV and experience domestic violence.
The organization declared child marriage a global issue fueled by gender inequality, poverty, social norms and insecurity and has devastating consequences worldwide.
They reported that 12 million girls are married before 18 each year – a figure equivalent to 23 girls per minute and one every three seconds.
Nearly 40 percent of girls in the world’s poorest countries are married as children, twice the global average, Girls Not Brides revealed.
In the U.S., an estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were married between 2000 and 2010.
When experiencing acute poverty, families – and sometimes girls themselves – see marriage as a way to reduce family costs and gain financial security, the organization stated.
“This idea is reinforced by patriarchal norms that devalue and commodify girls,” officials wrote on the Girls Not Brides website. “Because girls have less access to education and low social, political and economic status, they are often economically dependent on men. As a result, they may see marriage as their only option.”
Lawmakers originally designed the Tennessee bill to create an alternate legal pathway to marriage, allowing opposite-sex couples to file marriage “contracts” based on common law principles that the state has not yet legally recognized.
The contracts would not be available to same-sex couples.
Sponsors of the legislation recently added amendments specifying a man and woman seeking the contract must have “attained the age of majority,” which currently stands at 18 in Tennessee.
Child advocates noted that the original bill had no minimum age limit.
In a Psychology Today column shared with The Informer, Dr. Mellissa Withers noted that the United Nations had defined child marriage as “an appalling violation of human rights” because no one is mature enough to consent to marriage before age 18.
Withers added that most consider child marriage the most common form of sexual exploitation of girls.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals calls for eliminating child marriage before the year 2030.
Progress toward this goal is measured by estimating the proportion of women ages 20 to 24 married before age 18.
“Child marriage should also be recognized as a form of human trafficking,” Withers opined.
The Trafficking Protocol of 2000, an international protocol joined by the U.S. in December of 2000, defined 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,” Withers said. “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.”