If you think child marriage is a thing of the past, think again: Here in America, tens of thousands of children have tied the knot in recent years, perfectly legally. Now rights activists are asking why a wealthy modern democracy can deem a child too young to vote or smoke, but old enough to marry.
About half of US states set no legal minimum age for marriage, and several states have only weak oversight over the practice. So what does that mean for the rights of children in an age of women’s emancipation?
While there is much cultural debate over the nature of marriage as an institution, state laws generally define it as a legal union of consenting adults. But when minors are involved, the bounds of marriage for children in the United States might be loose enough to give a free pass to forced marriage, and the burdens of abuse and sexual violence that follow.
According to research by the advocacy group Tahirih Justice Center, in about half of states marriage well below the age of 18 can be legally sanctioned, typically under arbitrary rules of consent and lax legal review. Roughly 200,000 people, the vast majority of them girls, have been married under such policies between 2000 and 2015.
A survivor interviewed in the report recalled the moment matrimony ended both childhood and independence: “In that courthouse my whole life was stolen. One of the clerks there actually said to me as I stood there crying, ‘Cheer up, this will be the happiest day of your life, wipe them tears.’”
The law props up this edifice of romance in about 25 states, where the government sets no legal minimum marriage age. Just three states, Virginia, New York, and Texas, limit marriage to over-18-year-olds, thanks to recent reforms. (In June, New York finally raised the marriage age from 14 to 18.)
Other states have blurrier standards. Seventeen states allow a judge to approve underage marriage after considering a “child’s best interest.” In eight states and Washington, DC, a court clerk’s approval is required. In 37 states, marriage at 16 or 17 requires approval by the child’s custodial parents.
Nationally, rights advocates call for all states to “set the minimum marriage age at 18, no exceptions.”
From a social and developmental standpoint, they cite evidence of special risks for children who marry early, especially extreme rates of intimate partner violence. For girls aged 16 to 19, the domestic violence rate is around three times the national average.
Advocates argue that marriage for a young adolescent often involves all the vulnerabilities of childhood, yet few of the rights of adulthood. A minor “mature enough” for matrimony, researchers warn, could still “be legally unable to take critical steps to protect herself.” And there is massive risk of “experiencing abuse at the hands of her partner” before and after marriage.