Photo illustration by John Lyman

U.S. News


America Still Has a Child Marriage Problem

It is many little girls’ dream to walk down the aisle on their wedding day. After graduating from college, having life experience, and a professional career, it is time to say, “I do.”

However, there is a myth many Americans believe: child marriages exist only in poor and developing countries. Many Americans today are blinded by the reality that legislation regarding child marriage rights in many states reflects those in Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Child marriage is legal across several U.S. states. Americans are conditioned through the media that when thinking of child brides, to generally think exclusively of a poor girl in a faraway developing nation. This marketing works because it is not entirely wrong.

According to the United Nations, one in nine girls are married by age fifteen, and one in three are married by age eighteen. However, in several states where the age limit is set at eighteen, there are loopholes that force children to get married as young as ten years old.

Between 2000 and 2015, nearly a quarter of a million American children were married below the age of 18. This has sentenced thousands of American girls to become a slave to motherhood and becoming a slave to the idea of being a wife as young as a fifth grader. Marriage before the age of 18 is a human rights abuse.

The international community has devoted itself to ending child marriage by 2030. The U.S. is just waking up to this issue, behind countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Gambia, and Chad which have banned child marriages since 2014. And before looking at the child bride crisis in the United States that is backed by policy, it is essential not to be blinded by Western hypocrisy on child bride legislation.

The United States promotes and funds policies overseas to prevent women and young girls from marrying so young; however, the laws to protect minors in the U.S. are incredibly patchy and vary from state to state. U.S. marriage laws are regulated at the state level, and 48 states have legal loopholes allowing marriage under 18.

So why does child marriage in the United States exist in the first place?

This is quite a complex question as this is a topic with numerous positions and various nuances within those positions. And although some Republicans oppose legislation to raise the legal age to 18, some progressive states like California take the same position. California’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the right to marriage is inherently a reproductive right.

The ACLU argued that a parent telling a pregnant child they cannot get married would instill in the child’s mind that they are unfit to be a parent, leading to coercive reproductive decisions. Without even considering that not only should the child not even be pregnant in the first place, but the consequences of delivering a child outside of marriage are much lower than the life-long detrimental impacts of forced marriage.

This line of thought rivals another argument for pushing forced child marriages: religion. The popular stories of child brides—many of whom are now activists against the practice—involve being forced by their families to wed their abusers, who were frequently active in their church, despite the lack of empirical data on the topic. For some Christians, pregnancy is viewed as immoral outside of marriage which is why child marriage is accepted in many rural and religious areas of the United States.

Adolescent pregnancy and childhood marriages are especially prevalent in poor, rural places with conservative religious populations. However, it may exist in religious and secular families and all socioeconomic sectors. A study by Frontline found that between 2000 and 2015, more than 207,000 American minors were married. The average age was 17, but 985 were only 14, and 10 were only twelve. And in reality, a teenage girl in the United States is more likely to suffer economic instability and deprivation if she were to marry at a young age than a pregnant adolescent girl who stays single for the rest of her life, let alone her teenage years. If the child is to get married, she is more susceptible to becoming pregnant again or multiple times. Case studies show that there are 16-year-olds with six children in the U.S.

In addition to these statistics, fifty percent are more likely to drop out of high school and four times more likely to drop out of college. 23% of women who marry as young girls are usually divorced by the age of 18, and 80% of marriages end in divorce. Which, if anything, opposes religious expectations more than the pregnant child. In a review of one of the most prevalent case studies on child marriages in the United States, Unchained at Last found that the issue in the United States are the laws themselves, as opposed to nations wherein forced child marriage is prohibited but still occurs.