Child Marriage in America: Why Is It Still Legal?

Child Marriage in America: Why Is It Still Legal?

Imagine, for a moment, living in a country where underage marriage is legal. A place where a 45-year-old man marries an innocent 14-year-old girl, and no one stops him.

You don’t have to imagine it, because you are living in that country.

Underage marriage is still legal in 43 American states. Between 2000-2018, an estimated 300,000 children were married, some as young as ten years old. The vast majority were underage girls who married much older men (though young boys were married in about 14% of the cases).

How is this still legal in America? What’s behind the resistance to change? And what can you do to protect young people from child marriage?

The Hidden Problem of Child Marriage

According to the American Council on Foreign Relations website:

“The practice of child marriage is a human rights violation…Child marriage perpetuates poverty over generations and is linked to poor health, curtailed education, violence, instability, and disregard for the rule of law. Its effects are harmful not only to girls, but also to families, communities, and economies—and to U.S. interests—around the globe.”

We condemn child marriage in other countries. 

Yet here in America, child marriage persists in nearly every state. In 20 states, there is no minimum age for marriage with parental consent or judicial waiver. That is, it’s perfectly legal for a 10-year-old girl to marry a 50-year-old man if she has a parent’s consent. And while it might seem impossible that any parent would agree to such an atrocity, it does indeed happen, especially in certain cultural or religious circles. 

Child marriage has devastating consequences for these girls. Most are too young to enter into any other legal contract, but somehow the government deems them mature enough to marry. They often face educational deficits, are at greater risk of intimate partner violence, and have few options to flee their spouse. Because they are minors, these children are not allowed to file divorce proceedings in most states, even though the state allowed them to be wed. If they flee, they’re considered runaways. And even if they do leave, they have few financial or social resources.  

Child Marriage and Sexual Assault

While some child marriages occur between older teens and partners who are barely into adulthood, a large national study found that most of these children marry someone much older. In an estimated 40,000 of the cases listed in the study, the age difference between the child and the person she married would constitute statutory rape in the state where the wedding took place.

Let that sink in: the law says the age difference constitutes statutory rape, but the law doesn’t prevent them from marrying. 

In 80% of these cases, the state laws make sex legal between a child and an adult when they are married, essentially overriding the laws designed to prevent young girls from sexual predators. In the other 20%, the marriage was legal, but sex was not. In both cases, the adults were not charged with any crime – and the young girls were not protected.

Why Is This Still Legal?

The laws surrounding child marriage date back 100 years or more, when it was common for young women to marry. However, these laws have not been updated to reflect what we now know: marriage in childhood is unhealthy and immoral. 

There is no good explanation for why these laws remain in place. Simply put, legislators have failed to make it a priority. 

What You Can Do

Child marriage is abuse, pure and simple. There is no excuse for allowing children – young girls – to be married when they aren’t even old enough to vote. In some cases, these young victims aren’t even out of middle school before they are married off to someone four times their age. 

It’s unconscionable that child marriage is legal in the United States. 

What can you do about it? Start by emailing or calling your representatives at the state and national levels. Ask them to educate themselves about this issue and draft legislation to outlaw marriage for anyone under the age of 18 immediately. 

America cannot condemn child marriage in other countries while allowing it to happen unchecked within our borders. 

The seven states that have outlawed child marriage have only done so in the last five years. Our collective voices make a difference. Stand up and speak out for these young girls who can’t speak out for themselves. 

To learn more about child marriage and its devastating impacts in America, visit the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States.

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