Child marriage is not consensual: America’s dirty little secret

If you even think about child marriage, perhaps you think this kind of child abuse only happens in developing countries. Perhaps you think that here in the United States we would never allow such a travesty to befall our children.

Well, you are wrong – and the statistics are shocking. From 2000-2010 nearly 250,000 minors were married—mostly girls, married to much older men. Twelve of our states do not even track child marriage. Ten of our states have no minimum age for marriage.

From 2000-2010 nearly 250,000 minors were married—mostly girls, married to much older men.

From 2007-2017 the United States Customs and Immigration Services approved 8,686 petitions for foreign spouses. All of which involved minors marrying older men. In 2018, child marriage was legal in all 50 of the United States. Each state has created its own laws and each state has created loopholes that allow for child marriage. 

At the age of 13, I was forced to marry my care provider. He was a 32-year-old man whose “care” involved rape that resulted in pregnancy. Marriage to this man was forced on me, while there is a Federal Statutory Rape Law, a legal union exempts the rapist from punishment. So, my rapist received a ticket out of prison while I received a life sentence.

By the time I was 15, I had two children. Statistics show that married teens are 40 percent more likely to give birth to a second baby within 24 months of the first baby. These child marriages have devastating consequences: 80 percent of married teens end up divorced and living in poverty because without support or the opportunity to finish school, they cannot get a job.

Since the young mother’s parents are often the perpetrators, as in my case, I was left to survive on my own at 16 years old when I escaped the marriage with two toddlers. I was turned away from shelters because I was a minor and threatened with being sent back to my rapist or parents by law enforcement. I was not of legal age to sign a rental agreement or hire a lawyer. Sadly enough, suicide is sometimes the only way out for these young girls.

The U.S. Department of State calls child marriage a human rights abuse issue and The American Medical Association says child marriage puts children in danger of sexual trauma, mental trauma, human trafficking, and sexually transmitted diseases. According to the World Health Organization, the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 is complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

I floundered my way through my young adult life. Living below the poverty line. Sometimes without the basic essentials of electricity or even toilet paper. Most painful was not the fact that we went without but the fear I felt every day that my children would be taken away if anyone knew how we were living.

In the United States today, Unchained At Last is the leading non-profit focused on spearheading this issue. With the testimony of child marriage survivors like myself, legislation has been passed to end child marriage in Delaware and New Jersey (2018) – each with a bright-line bill of 18 years old, no exceptions. 

As an adult, I have become an activist. I am a founding member of the organization “National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States” which is working at the federal level to address issues such as the statutory rape law. 

I am currently working with Global Hope 365 with a primary focus on ending child marriage in California. We have successfully established resolutions in five California counties.

The Global pandemic has not interrupted this fight. By using our voices and telling our stories we have successfully closed the loopholes that allowed child marriage in two more states, Pennsylvania and Minnesota – also with the 18-year-old, no exceptions bill.

In 2018 when I began my investigations into child marriage, I was empowered by the knowledge that my case was not an isolated one. Growing up, I had convinced myself that it was. Learning that this type of abuse is affecting young girls in all 50 states inspired me to use my voice to speak out for those who cannot. 

When I was silenced at age 13 about the truth of my situation, I was forced to marry in the best interest of the adults. The rapist escaped criminal charges and my parents avoided child neglect and endangerment charges. I only came to understand much later that children in my situation become peacekeepers who learn that they must not speak out against the abuse or manipulation by the very adults who have been entrusted with their care.

Now we know that it takes nearly three decades for child marriage survivors to overcome the shame they feel over this betrayal and finally speak up. Life before that is a struggle just to survive. And the economic impact trickles down from generation to generation. Those who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to complete college. The pandemic has only added to these staggering numbers. Child marriage is on the rise globally.

Child marriage is on the rise globally.

Ending child marriage is part of the Sustainable Goal Act of 2030. I believe this can be done, but only through educating our communities. It is astounding to discover that many legislators have no idea child marriage is legal in their state. How could they not know that we are not proactively protecting the rights of children? If we are to evolve as a nation, our outdated and archaic laws must be rewritten. If this is to be a country of equal opportunity, then child marriage must stop robbing children of actualizing their full potential.

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If you even think about child marriage, perhaps you think this kind of child abuse only happens in developing countries. Perhaps you think that here in the United States we would never allow such a travesty to befall our children. Well, you are wrong – and the statistics are shocking. From 2000-2010 nearly 250,000 minors were married—mostly girls, married to …

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Notable Replies

  1. Does ending child marriage also include criminalizing marriage between equally aged and potentially consenting teenagers and making 18+ a legal age for marriage? Honest Question.

    Personally, I think the entire concept of marriage is obsolete but I think… say, 2 16-year-olds could consent to getting married to each other. My grandparents were married when they were 14 years old each and by all accounts, they’ve been happy for the 50+ years they’ve been married. I don’t think it’s fair to declare their marriage criminal or immoral on the basis that it could have been forced.

  2. There is a distinction between the legal age for sex and the legal age for marriage. Child marriage activists are trying to raise the legal marriage age to 18, but they are not trying to change the age of consent. Also, people who are already married would not be criminalized if the marriage age was raised to 18.

  3. 2030 is a very optimistic date to end child marriage and I don’t believe that simply raising the marriage age is going to stop child marriage, just as consent laws don’t stop pedophilia. These laws are based on overly-simplistic thinking and they often end up hurting innocent people, rather than stopping criminals.

    If you really want to stop this stuff, you need to get the source of it.

    Marriage is a social construct based upon two things, religion, and economics, both of which have combined and engrained themselves into almost every culture. Even if you aren’t getting married for religious reasons, marriage has religious origins and every marriage that has ever transpired had either economic or political benefits. Marriage wasn’t even about ‘‘love’’ until the 18th century. When teen parents get married, they may do so because their religion dictates as such but the capitalist economic system makes it impossible for them to raise children without being married. Likewise, even if they were older, it would still be very difficult or even impossible to raise a family in a late-stage capitalist society.

    The majority of child marriages which are are abusive, transpire between children and adults, these marriages are usually done for economic and political reasons beneath a religious veil. In these marriages, the families of the bride and groom are always getting something from the forced marriage at the expense of the child whether it be wealth or power.

    If you want to end child marriage, you need to tackle the economic, political, and religious motivations for child marriage and fix it from there, rather than making a brand new age restriction.

  4. I think it’s axiomatic that anything that needs to be tackled by tackling economic disparities is being chucked into the ‘impractical to deal with’ bin. Not that economic issues can’t be dealt with in principle, but the idea that they WILL be is nothing if not a wild card.

  5. I got interested in the Frontline report on this topic many months ago and pulled together some of the numbers given in it. Child Marriage in America.

    I was curious in part about how many of these marriages met the federal age criteria for marriage in Canada, where the minimum age is set to 16. (Provinces may enact additional safeguards). I got interested basically because the stated number of child marriages seemed improbably high, based on a scenario of much older males marrying early teen females, and I thought some fact-checking was in order.

    Of the 207,459 marriages listed by Frontline as child marriages, 138,998 involved a 17 year old, while 60,163 involved a 16 year old (Section “How old were the minors who married?”).

    Thus, probably (bearing in mind that some cases involved minors 16-17 marrying still younger minors), 199,161 of the marriages would involve at least one person over 16 but under 18 who would be legally entitled to marry in Canada. However, there were also 8298 marriages involving persons under 16 in the report, of whom 985 were stated to be 14, 51 were 13 and 6 were 12. It can be deduced from this that 7256 were 15.

    It was stated that 14% of the minors married other minors, but no breakdown by age of younger partner involved is given.

    Those who married non-minors, that is, adults over 18, can be roughly estimated by subtracting that 14% from the baseline for each age group.

    Marriages at age 17: if 14%, that is, 19,460, married other minors, that leaves 119,538 marrying adults; of those, given the overall percentages listed for age of adult, the estimated number that married adults 18-20 was not less than 71,723, leaving 47,815 marrying adults over 20.

    The marriages that would have been legal in Canada (younger partner 16-17) for those marrying persons over 18 (27,883 married under-18s): Overall number would be 171,278, within which 102,766 married people 18-20, leaving 68,512 for over 20. About 25,691 married men 24+ , 5138 married men over 29. (see " How Old Were the Adults Who Married Minors?" section)

    Of the 8298 marriages involving people under 16 , at least 1162 of these minors themselves married minors, leaving est. 7136 marrying adults. Of those, 4282 can be calculated as adults 18-20. 2854 are left. 15% of the 7136 married adults 24+, which is 1070. Theoretically, 214 married men over 29.

    So, on the one hand, a truly startling number of young teenagers, under 16, married adults, of which nearly 15% were a decade older or more. On the other hand, nearly half of the 207,459 proclaimed child marriages were between a 16- or 17-year old and someone 18-20. Some 35% were between a 17-year-old and someone 18-20. So, while the problem itself is not in any way exaggerated, the shocking numbers given are indeed somewhat padded.

    If the age of consent didn’t change and the age of marriage in the US rose to 18 nationwide, that would entail that a majority of states would legally oblige teens between the two ages to keep any sex they were having as pre-marital sex, and to have any babies born in this time out of wedlock, by force of law. Such a measure couldn’t be more antithetical to traditional Christianity, and I would be very surprised if such a state of affairs came about.

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