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.
What about the rights of youth who want to marry? Tahirih’s campaign against forced marriage argues that standardizing the minimum marriage age wouldn’t conflict with children’s rights but actually protect them, because existing state policies are riddled with gaping loopholes or judicial blindspots.
For example: Some states lower marriage age for pregnant teens, as if being old enough for pregnancy means being mature enough for marriage. Some states might effectively bar a married minor from “fil[ing] on her own for a protective order against her parents or a dating partner,” or require that in order to file a divorce proceeding, the youth must have “an adult to file on her behalf.” Or an abuse victim might find herself unable to escape an abusive home because, in some states, “if friends take her in, they could risk being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor or harboring a runaway.”
Donna Pollard, who at 16 married a man in his early 30s, recalled the obstacles she confronted shortly after their wedding ceremony. “It did not take long for the abuse and exploitation by the man I now refer to as my perpetrator to begin…. I tried to leave more than once, but because I had not yet reached the age of 18, the age of true adulthood, apartment complexes would not rent to me because I could not enter into a contract. I was trapped.”
The line of consent gets skewed if a girl can be “old enough” to marry but too young to divorce. According to Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih’s senior counsel for policy and strategy, judicial review procedures could also give judges “unfettered discretion,” and cover only a limited number of cases because some jurisdictions refer only a small number for further review. Besides, how would a judge know, say, that the would-be young pregnant bride was just raped by the middle-aged groom appearing beside her in court? “If it’s subjective decision making and decades-old assumptions that are informing the [judge’s view of the] best interests of a girl,” Smoot says, the court may hastily determine “it’s better to get her married.”
Similarly, some states allow marriage for teens who have legally “emancipated,” but standards for emancipation tend to be inconsistent and arbitrary—for instance, just requiring proof of financial self-sufficiency, which has little to do with marriage. Merely qualifying for emancipation on paper, Smoot argues, “may not shield them from the risks of marrying before they’re really ready.”
Some high-profile cases of forced marriage in the West have involved cultural barriers, such as coerced marriage in some Orthodox Jewish communities and conservative South Asian communities. But these issues aren’t merely “cultural,” as the Sexual Rights Initiative makes clear: “[T]he practice of early and forced marriage…is not limited to a particular age, gender, geographic location, class or religion.”
Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, which campaigns to end child marriage both in the United States and internationally, sees the outmoded US laws as an example of how patriarchy isn’t a Third World problem: “We came to the US work kind of accidentally as a result of work we were doing on child marriage in other countries, most of the countries with high prevalence rates,” like Bangladesh or Yemen.
By changing its own, surprisingly regressive, laws on child marriage, Barr adds, the United States could help ensure that Western countries lead by example “by cleaning their own houses.”
Regulating behavior based on age or sexuality can spark controversies over issues of personal liberty. But in marriage the deepest fissures of society often surface. When navigating the complex dynamics of a legal partnership, upholding a youth’s dignity requires both respect and protection for their freedom.