This summer, Virginia lawmakers passed a law preventing anyone under the age of 16 from marrying in the state.
Some would call this progress, but advocates fighting to end child marriage in the United States see it as a sobering reminder that adults can legally marry children in all 50 states.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), child marriage is “perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls,” and “marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights.”
Fraidy Reiss is the founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls leave or avoid forced marriages, and advocates to end the practice of child marriage. She lived in an arranged marriage for more than a decade.
“The effects [of child marriage] on a girl’s life are so devastating that our own State Department, in March of this year, apparently not aware that child marriage is legal in all 50 U.S. states, declared child marriage to be a human rights abuse,” Reiss said.
Today 27 U.S. states allow children of any age to marry, according to Tahirih Justice Center, so long as they meet that state’s exceptions to age requirements –meaning they have permission from parents, a judge or some combination of the two. In 38 states and Washington D.C., older youth, often ages 15-17, can be authorized to marry by a clerk and don’t ever have to go before a judge.
Nine states currently allow pregnancy exceptions. All states have set by statute a minimum age for marriage, typically 18, but in all states, some form of exception may apply that can bring the true minimum age below 18.
“A lot of Americans have this romantic notion of marriage as this beautiful thing, and it’s a civil right that we want everyone to have,” Reiss said. “But I would caution people to understand that forcing children into a marriage or even having children enter into these relationships ‘willingly’ is a very different type of marriage. We’re talking about human trafficking, we’re talking about statutory rape, we’re talking about something very different. No one would say, ‘let’s allow human trafficking if it’s part of someone’s culture.’”
Child marriage is more common in the U.S. than most Americans may realize; why it’s a problem is even less well understood. But the facts are that minors have few legal rights, and their brains are still developing – two conditions that set them up for particularly harmful outcomes when they say “I do” while underage.
The phrase “child marriage” usually calls up images like those captured by photographer Stephanie Sinclair: 8-year-old girls in elaborate dresses, wind catching their scarves as they stand next to their husbands, 20 years their senior, against a backdrop of hillsides in rural Yemen, the fields of Ethiopia or a village in Afghanistan.
The first thought is likely not of a 13-year-old Canadian girl being trafficked by her parents to a small town in Arizona where she’ll marry a man 35 years her senior, or a 16-year-old immigrant mom now living in Texas who somehow survived the harrowing trip from Guatemala, her toddler in tow.
About 15 million girls around the world are married before their 18th birthdays each year – or about 40,000 per day, according to the International Center for Research on Women.
Exactly how many of these young brides reside in the United States is unknown; states are not required to flag the number of marriage licenses issued to persons under the age of 18, and those that do are not feeding the numbers into a centralized database.
In Virginia, about 4,500 minors were married between 2004 and 2013, including girls as young as 13, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“At least tens of thousands of children were married in the United States in the last decade, and it’s clear that almost all of them were girls, and almost all of them were married to adult men,” Reiss said.
So why don’t more people, more legislators, realize that marriage of minors, often forced by parents and prospective spouses, is a problem? It may be a latent function of American exceptionalism, according to experts.
Jeanne Smoot is senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, the nonprofit that led the charge in changing Virginia’s policy.
“Maybe someone’s grandmother got married young and it worked out okay,” Smoot said. “They don’t look at maternal and child mortality rates in Africa and think they are relevant here. But I think they’re just not aware of all of the mounting evidence we have that child marriage has devastating and lifelong harmful effects here in the U.S.”
Vivian Hamilton of William and Mary Law School has studied child marriage at length. Hamilton’s 2012 Boston Law Review paper, “The Age of Marital Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriage,” culled nearly 400 sources to paint a complex picture of underage marriage.
“Many Americans assume that the law already requires individuals to reach the age of majority before marrying,” Hamilton said in an email. “There’s a lack of awareness that our laws currently permit children to marry, and that children in the U.S. are entering marriages.”
“As a society, we view marriage as a foundational social institution, and it’s one to which most individuals aspire. Understanding that some marriages – by their very structure – are likely to be harmful to one or both spouses runs counter to this shared, deeply held belief in marriage as a social good.”
The Costs of Early Marriage
Despite longstanding cultural and religious justifications for allowing underage people to marry, there is one fundamental problem with the practice, advocates say: A child, most often female, has no rights and no agency, but the person she is married to does.
This creates an imbalance of power that is often reinforced by the legal system.
In Virginia, for example, before the new law passed, while 16 was (and still is) the legal age at which a teen can ask the court to recognize her as an independent adult, a 16-year-old who got married was not automatically emancipated. This meant that if her spouse abused her, she couldn’t pursue legal protection or go to a shelter, according to a blog post written by Smoot.
Laws allowing minors to marry are part of a sticky web that is not easily escaped when wedded adolescents find themselves in a bad situation.
“In most cases, if a minor leaves home, the police will track down the minor as a runaway and return the minor to her or his parents or family,” Reiss of Unchained at Last said. “Minors have a very difficult time getting into domestic violence shelters across the United States. I deal with this all the time. In one case, a shelter wouldn’t take in a girl even a day before her 18th birthday because they could be charged with kidnapping.”
In most states, children cannot bring legal actions, meaning a married child is not allowed to file for divorce.
The long-term impacts on the wellbeing of married children are significant. Smoot and Reiss describe them as “devastating.”
According to a literature review published by The World Bank on the economic impact of child marriage, each year of early marriage below the age of 18 can lead to a decrease of 4–6 percentage points in the probability of secondary school completion. A married girl is often isolated from her peers and other social supports, and if she works, she usually has no control over her earnings.
A 2011 study found that U.S. women who married under the age of 18 had more short- and long-term medical and mental health problems.
Another researcher focused on teen marriage and future poverty estimates that women who marry before age 19 are more likely to live in poverty, and are subject to adverse health impacts from early and frequent childbirth as well as intimate partner violence.
All of this begs the question of whether a young married girl can prevent the negative outcomes associated with early marriage through divorce, if she lives in a state where she can legally file for one.
But divorce, too, comes with a high price tag for females. Research says the negative psychological effects of divorce are greater than the positive benefits of marriage, and the risk of poverty is significantly higher for unwed women who marry and then divorce than for their never-married peers.
Adult men, however, have been shown to experience an increase in economic well-being post-divorce.
Early marriages overwhelmingly end in divorce. Hamilton found that 70 percent of marriages entered before age 18 fail; those who marry in their mid-teens experience divorce closer to 80 percent of the time.
Why Marry Young?
Some argue that child marriage has increased in the last two decades thanks to abstinence-only sex education in schools.
Although researchers have found that the highest concentration of those marrying early is often among the socially conservative, poorest and most religious groups, located in the southeastern U.S. and in nonmetropolitan areas, Reiss says child marriage happens across diverse communities.
What’s more, marriage can be used as an escape hatch for adults who have sex with minors; in states where that’s not the case, it is unclear whether the judge or clerk with the power to grant a marriage license is enforcing the law.
“In some states, marriage is a defense in a statutory rape case, so in those states the law can be an incentive to force a child into marriage because now her predator, who is having sex with a child and could be charged with a crime – as soon as he marries this girl, suddenly he’s no longer committing a crime,” Reiss said.
In Virginia, Tahirih found that “All of the marriage licenses granted to children under age 15, and most of those granted to pregnant 15-17 year olds, sanctioned statutory rape as defined in Virginia.”
But Smoot says most of the child marriages they see are parent-perpetrated.
For some teens living in an abusive home environment, marriage might be a way out. “The fact that there’s no mechanism to detect that that’s the situation that’s happening and to get that young person help rather than, perhaps, from frying pan to fire, is a huge concern for us,” Smoot said.
Casey Carter Swegman, project manager at Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative, says the abuse may be related to a planned marriage.
“They are suffering abuse at home but that abuse is truly focused, whether it is emotional, physical, psychological or all of the above, to get them to acquiesce to a marriage that they don’t want, and so their solution is to marry someone else, someone they feel they’ve selected, but that we as a service provider know to also be abusive and also somewhat predatory, as a way to prevent the unwanted forced marriage that their families are planning,” Swegman said.
This underscores Tahirih’s larger concern. “There are many layers of abuse and exploitation and coercion that go into these scenarios and in all of them the system is not set up to detect and protect the young person from them,” Smoot said.
Researcher Vivian Hamilton argues that the question of whether we should allow minors to marry is a matter of cognitive development.
Hamilton points to research that has shown that humans develop the cognitive abilities related to giving consent by age 15 or 16, but the socio-emotional maturity and other abilities needed to sustain a marriage don’t come about until later, between the ages of 18 and 25.
In other words, teenagers can cognitively understand that they are entering into a marriage contract; what they cannot comprehend is what will be required of them emotionally, intellectually, maybe even physically, in order to fulfill that contract.
While adolescents’ thinking abilities are not dramatically different from those of adults, their decision-making abilities can easily be compromised in certain situations. Such circumstances might include an emotionally charged or stressful moment, the need to decide quickly, or when subjected to external or peer pressure.
Based on what is known about brain development and divorce rates, Hamilton says that the minimum age for marriage should be raised to 21 or 22.
Unchained at Last advocates for a minimum age of 18, without exception. Other advocates might argue that intermediary steps would be ensuring that anyone under the age of 18 seeking a marriage license has to go before a judge, privately so they can speak freely, and that judges be trained to recognize signs of forced marriage.
So what prevents states from setting a minimum age for marriage?
“In many cases, state legislators, like their constituents, are simply unaware that child marriage occurs legally in the U.S. In other cases, legislators (and/or their constituents) believe that – especially in the event of unplanned pregnancy – marriage is preferable to a non-marital birth,” Hamilton said in an email.
Some legislators have pushed against establishing a minimum age, saying that there should be an exception when an underage girl is pregnant in order to discourage out-of-wedlock births.
But recent research has shown that girls ages 16-19 face intimate partner victimization rates that are up to three times the national average, and girls who are abused are six times more likely to get pregnant.
“Those who look at pregnancy exceptions and would want to preserve them don’t have in mind how much a pregnant teen could be evidenced that she’s already been abused, let alone that she could face a future lifetime of abuse,” Smoot of Tahirih said.
Tahirih is tracking legislation across the country related to child and forced marriage. Texas, Maryland and New York introduced bills during the last session, and there’s legislation currently pending in Unchained at Last’s home state of New Jersey.
“I have never heard a compelling case for why a child should be married,” Reiss said. “We’re not taking away anyone’s civil liberty; we’re delaying it. We’re saying, ‘Wait until you’re the right age.’”
Editor’s Note: Some language has been adjusted to clarify the law and to credit the source of state statistical information, Tahirih Justice Center. For example, as of July 1, in order to get married in Virginia you must be age 18 or older, or age 16 or 17 and “emancipated” – declared a legal adult – by a family court judge.