It Happens Here Too: Thousands of American Girls Face Forced Marriage

Gaps in marriage-protection laws have allowed children as young as 12 to wed adults.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Mar 14, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The average age to walk down the aisle has steadily climbed for American women, up from 20 in the 1960s to 27 in 2015. But while many women wait to tie the knot until they’ve graduated from college or secured their dream job, thousands of American girls get married before they even make it out of high school.

Most states require both parties to be at least 18 to legally bind themselves in marriage. Yet, every state in the nation offers some exception to the rule, allowing teens to marry with parental consent or because of a pregnancy, which advocates say is insufficient to ensure that a child’s best interests are protected.

“Parental consent can hide parental coercion, and a pregnancy can be evidence of a rape,” Jeanne Smoot, senior policy council at the Tahirih Justice Center, told TakePart.

While the majority of the 700 million women alive today who were married before they turned 18 are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, child marriage in the U.S. is far from rare. The Tahirih Justice Center, which also works to protect women and girls from domestic violence and human trafficking, has been combing through individual state records to determine the most egregious holes in marriage law and has found that its home state of Virginia was often failing to protect its girls.

About 4,500 children were married in Virginia between 2004 and 2013, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. Ninety percent of the children married were girls, and the vast majority married adults. Nearly 100 of them married an adult more than 10 years their senior.

“A lot of people, when they first think of [child marriage], they think, ‘Oh, this is something that happens somewhere else,’ and they don’t realize that this absolutely is happening here,” Virginia Rep. Jennifer McClellan told TakePart. “The most disturbing [case] was a 13-year-old pregnant girl. When she showed up at the court, somebody should have said, ‘Hold up. She is pregnant—someone committed a crime.’ Instead, she was given a marriage license and married the person who committed that crime."

With guidance from the Tahirih Justice Center, McClellan introduced legislation to amend Virginia’s marriage laws, which allow 16- or 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. Children 15 or younger can also get married with parental consent if there’s evidence of a pregnancy. McClellan’s legislation completely bans marriage for anyone under 16 and requires that 16- and 17-year-olds in the state be legally emancipated from their parents.

Without emancipation, married minors are stuck in a gray area. They’re unable to file for divorce or request a protective order. In Virginia, Child Protective Services only steps in for minors being abused by a parent, guardian, or caretaker—spouses are not considered caretakers. Minors may also struggle to find a shelter willing to house them, as many have age requirements or are legally obligated to report minors as runaways.

“What this bill does is say, ‘If you are going to enter into the adult relationship of a marriage, we need to make sure you’re doing this of your own free will…. We’re also going to give you all of the rights of an adult, so if that marriage does go wrong, you can get out,’ ” McClellan explained. Her bill passed the state legislature earlier this month and awaits a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe to become law.

Smoot explained that while Virginia’s law may be sufficient to protect children from forced or coerced marriage owing to the robust regulations in place for emancipation orders—including legal counsel for the child and judges’ ability to launch an investigation if they suspect abuse—girls in other states with high rates of child marriage might not benefit from the same legislation.

Lawmakers in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York have introduced bills that would change the legal age for marriage to 18, without exception. These states have child marriage figures that are similar to those in Virginia, according to research from Unchained at Last, an organization working alongside the Tahirih Justice Center to end underage marriage. In Maryland, 3,100 children were married between 2000 and 2014. At least 69 of the girls in Maryland were under 15 and victims of statutory rape, as they married because of pregnancy and to men at least four years their senior. Between 1995 and 2012, nearly 3,500 children were married in New Jersey. More than 3,800 children were married between 2000 and 2010 in New York. Laws in both New Jersey and New York require judicial consent for children under 16 to marry but contain little criteria for judges to consider, resulting in a New Jersey judge allowing a 12-year-old girl to marry an 25-year-old man and New York judges signing orders allowing at least three girls under 15 to marry men 25 or older.

Smoot and her colleagues have heard from girls across the country who are stuck in abusive marriages, representing a wide range of religious, socioeconomic, and family backgrounds.

“[Child marriage] has deep roots in a lot of different traditions,” Smoot explained, ticking off a list of scenarios that can result in coerced marriage, including pressure from an abusive boyfriend or threats from parents upon discovering that their child is sexually active.

Both McClellan and Smoot noted that pregnancy exceptions for child marriage indicate a stubborn stigma attached to unwed motherhood.

“That’s a value statement that is more about the pregnancy than about the safety and well-being of that girl,” said Smoot. Marriage likely isn’t in the best interest of a teen mom. Research from the College of William & Mary found that teenage mothers who marry before giving birth are less likely to finish high school than those who do not marry.

“Children in the U.S. aren’t somehow immune from all of those consequences we hear about overseas,” Smoot said. Children who marry before 18 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college. Married children also face higher rates of domestic and sexual abuse and have an increased likelihood of transmitting HIV. Nearly 80 percent of children who marry before they turn 18 will get divorced, and with lower levels of education, they are more likely to live in poverty.

While the passage of Virginia’s law is a big victory for the Tahirih Justice Center, Smoot notes that a lot more work is to be done to protect girls across the country.

“What we know about child marriage in the U.S. is that we’re looking at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of what the nature and scope of the problem is,” she said. “We’re hoping that with more knowledge, people will feel compelled to act to address the gaps in protection and the clear harms that result from it.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 14, 2016
The original version of this story stated that a 10-year-old boy had married an 18-year-old woman in New Jersey. Updated records from the New Jersey Health Department identified this statistic as a clerical error: The youngest age at which a child had married was listed as 12.