By Fraidy Reiss
OCT. 13, 2015
IN the United States today, thousands of children under 18 have recently taken marital vows — mostly girls married to adult men, often with approval from local judges. In at least one case, a 10-year-old boy was legally married.
How is this possible? The minimum marriage age in most states is 18, but every state allows exceptions under which children under age 18 can wed.
The first common exception is for children marrying with “parental consent.” Most states allow children age 16 or 17 to marry if their parents sign the marriage license application.
Of course, one person’s “parental consent” can be another’s “parental coercion,” but state laws typically do not call for anyone to investigate whether a child is marrying willingly. Even in the case of a girl’s sobbing openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk usually has no authority to intervene. In fact, in most states there are no laws that specifically forbid forced marriage.
The second common marriage-age exception is for children marrying with judicial approval. This exception lowers the marriage age below 16 in many states, and many states do not specify a minimum age. Judges in those states can allow the marriage even of an elementary school student.
But judges would never do that, right?
Unchained at Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women escape from arranged, forced marriages, recently retrieved health department data on the ages of people married in New Jersey, where 16- and 17-year-olds may wed with parental consent, and children under 15 may marry with judicial approval.
Unfortunately, the available records do not include any identifying details about marriages beyond the ages of the participants. Nevertheless, the data show that 3,499 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 178 were between ages 10 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages.
Shockingly, 91 percent of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges, not a marriage license. A judge in 2006 approved the marriage of a 10-year-old boy to an 18-year-old woman. A judge in 1996 allowed a 12-year-old girl to marry a 25-year-old man.
Based on my own experience working with forced-marriage victims across the United States, I am sure many of these children had to marry against their will. Forced marriage is a widespread but often ignored problem in the United States. A survey by the Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that provides services to immigrant women and girls, identified as many as 3,000 known or suspected forced-marriage cases just between 2009 and 2011, many involving girls under age 18. Tactics used against the victims included threats of ostracism, beatings or death.
Forced and child marriages happen almost everywhere, yet only 10 states or jurisdictions have specific laws that can be used to prevent or punish forced marriage. The Tahirih survey focused on immigrants, and it identified child marriages or forced marriages, or both, in immigrant communities from 56 countries of origin in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, but it also identified such marriage in so-called American families.
The survey found child marriage or forced marriage, or both, in families of many faiths, including Muslim, Christian (particularly Catholic), Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh. I have seen child and forced marriage in the Orthodox Jewish community, and I know survivors from Mormon and Unification Church backgrounds.
Parents give many reasons for forcing their children into marriage, including controlling the children’s sexuality and behavior and protecting “family honor.” Often families use forced marriage to enhance their status or gain economic security.
The New Jersey data show that 90 percent of the children married were girls, which is consistent with global trends. Across the world, child marriage and forced marriage disproportionately affect girls and women.
Unchained at Last also requested health department data on the ages of people recently married in New York State, where 16- and 17-year-olds may wed with “parental consent” and 14- and 15-year-olds may wed with judicial approval. The data show that 3,853 children were married between 2000 and 2010.
Data after 2010 excludes New York City, where statistics are kept separately. Still, the state data show that in 2011 alone, a 14-year-old married a 26-year-old, a 15-year-old was wed to a 28-year-old, another 15-year-old was wed to a 25-year-old and a 15-year-old married someone age “35 to 39.” All of those marriages were approved by New York judges.
Globally, 88 percent of countries set 18 as the minimum marriage age, but over half allow minor girls to marry with “parental consent,” according to the World Policy Center. More than 700 million women alive today were married before 18, including some 250 million who wed before 15, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Most live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, but as these new numbers show, too many live right here in the United States.
Marriage is a legal contract and it should be reserved for adults. The dangers of child marriage are, after all, very clear: A recent report found that child marriage “undermines girls’ health, education and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence.”
The solution is relatively simple. State legislators should eliminate the archaic legal exceptions that allow children to wed. This is the only way to end child and forced marriage in the United States.
Fraidy Reiss is executive director of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls leave or avoid arranged and forced marriages.