Child marriage remains shockingly prevalent in the United States and in many cases is forced by parents and other authority figures. Sadly, state laws regarding marriage involving a minor vary widely and are predicated on archaic and outdated thinking.
Tahirih Justice Center estimates that between 2000-2015 over 200,000 minors were legally married in the United States, and 25 states have no minimum age for marriage. While some states have set a minimum age, it can often be circumnavigated with the consent of the parents and a judge if the girl is pregnant.
Poor outcomes often result from child marriage for girls and young women. This includes a greater chance of interruption of education and lifelong poverty. Globally, complications resulting from childbirth are the most common cause of death for women between the ages of 15-19. In the United States, 70% to 80% of marriages involving minors end in divorce, and many of the women who were married as minors experience higher levels of mental health disorders.
Tahirih Justice Center has recorded 3,000 cases of forced marriage in the United States. Forced marriages involve threat, coercion, or lack of choice and are sometimes due to cultural or religious expectations of the families. This phenomenon is not isolated to one particular religious or cultural group but spans many.
According to the New York Times, a young woman recounts how her mother and church leaders for her to marry her 20 year old rapist at age 11, who was a leader in the church. This arranged marriage largely came as a result of an investigation by Child Protective Services. The girl’s family and church leaders wanted to avoid criminal culpability so instead of the situation being handled as one of child abuse, the marriage of the minor to the perpetrator provided a solution for those involved—an appalling and sad outcome.
Sadly, there are also many cases of Americans girls taken abroad by family members and forced into marriage. These scenarios present difficult challenges for the US embassies who are bound by local laws and agencies in the United States that may be attempting to help.
State laws help to reinforce the problem. In Florida, a girl can be married at any age with parental consent if she is pregnant. Many of these marriages involve underage girls with adult men. The Council on Foreign Relations has reported that 90% of marriages involving a minor that were married in Virginia involved a minor marrying an adult man.
Statutory rape laws are effectively mitigated if the minor is married to the perpetrator. Human Rights Watch has provided an interesting analysis of the antiquated child marriage law Florida, finding that Afghanistan’s laws surrounding child marriage are actually stricter than those in Florida.
Fortunately, several agencies are advocating to change these outdated laws and help the girls and women affected including Tahirih Justice Center and Unchained at Last. Human Rights Watch has also launched a campaign to bring awareness to this issue. Through the efforts of Tahirih Justice Center, Virginia recently enacted an age limit of 18 for legal marriage. There are several states working to address this issue, including Maryland and in Florida where child marriage is the second highest in the country. Surprisingly, these laws continue to meet resistance from some lawmakers.
Clearly, this is an issue that impacts the clients we serve as social workers and is an issue of social justice. By showing that we are aware of this issue and care, we can mobilize to tighten these legal loopholes. This is an issue of human rights and women’s rights, and we must demonstrate that these girls matter.