Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer/AP
Judy Wiegand speaks during a House Judiciary Committee meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, June 22, 2021. Ms. Wiegand, who was married when she was 13, spoke in favor of Senate Bill 35, raising the minimum age of marriage to 16.

When is marriage child abuse? Shifting attitudes bring reforms.

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Forty-four states allow some form of underage marriage in the United States. But last month, North Carolina joined a growing movement to legislate reforms meant to curb child marriages, and protect the young people – mostly girls – who are victimized by them.

“Some people romanticize the idea of young people getting married. It’s not [romantic]. In fact the U.S. State Department has called marriage under 18 a human rights abuse,” says Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit aimed at ending child marriage for good.

Why We Wrote This

The modern idea of marriage is built on a foundation of love and partnership. Increasingly, states are rethinking how young is too young to enter into such a contract, as advocates lobby lawmakers to close child marriage loopholes.

The shift in thinking about this issue started gaining traction in 2015 when the United Nations formed Girls Not Brides, a global partnership with the goal of ending child marriage worldwide by 2030. Since then, advocacy groups in the U.S. have worked to persuade state legislatures to end what they describe as America’s “marriage problem.”

“There is definitely a bit of American exceptionalism when it comes to the issue – the idea that it happens in other countries, but not here,” says Max Robins, an American University student who started the group Students Against Child Marriage. “However, once there is an awareness about it, it’s a bipartisan subject that legislators can get behind.”  

When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina signed a law last month raising the age of marriage from 14 to 16 years old, those seeking an end to child marriage didn’t exactly celebrate.

“It’s a positive step. It’s better than nothing,” says Antonia Kirkland, global lead for legal equality at Equality Now, a nonprofit working to achieve legal systemic change to end violence and discrimination against women worldwide.

If her response was muted, it’s because children can still get married in North Carolina and because only six states nationwide outlaw marriage before age 18 with no exceptions. Still, advocates like Ms. Kirkland are hopeful that the law signifies changing attitudes regarding the differences between childhood and adulthood – legally, emotionally, and physically.

Why We Wrote This

The modern idea of marriage is built on a foundation of love and partnership. Increasingly, states are rethinking how young is too young to enter into such a contract, as advocates lobby lawmakers to close child marriage loopholes.

The shift in thinking about this issue started gaining traction in 2015 when the United Nations’ sustainable development goals led to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership with the goal of ending child marriage worldwide by 2030. Since then, advocacy groups in the United States have worked to persuade state legislatures to end what they describe as America’s “marriage problem.”

“People are more aware that it’s really harmful to be married before the age of 18, not just globally, but in the United States. Girls should be girls, not brides,” Ms. Kirkland says, echoing the U.N.’s call to action.

Nationwide, more than 200,000 minors were estimated to have been legally married between 2000 and 2018, according to a study by Unchained at Last, a nonprofit pushing to end child marriage in the U.S. The majority of those were girls married to adult men who were significantly older. Precise numbers aren’t available since data was only available from 41 states, according to an August 2020 International Research on Women report.

And while the number of child marriages nationwide decreased sharply during the 18-year span of Unchained’s study – there were an estimated 76,396 in 2000 and 2,493 in 2018 – the goal should be zero, argues Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last. 

Although many picture two teens eager to begin their lives together on equal footing, the reality is that many of these marriages involve young girls and much older men. “It’s not [romantic],” Ms. Reiss says. ”In fact the U.S. State Department has called marriage under 18 a human rights abuse.”

The persistence of forced marriage

Ms. Reiss’ own experience inspired her to launch Unchained in 2011. Raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Ms. Reiss was 19 when her parents forced her to marry a man several years her senior, who, she says, turned out to be violent. Ms. Reiss fled the marriage 12 years later and eventually divorced him and left the Hasidic community.

After graduating from Rutgers with a degree in journalism, Ms. Reiss began working with women who, too, were trying to flee forced marriages.

One view enshrined in many state laws is that, in some cases, marriage is appropriate for people under 18 if their decision is vetted by their parents, the courts, and in some cases both. As Ms. Reiss researched the issue, she concluded a year into her work that the only way to end forced marriages, many of which involved underage girls, was to advocate for a firm age limit.

Aside from meeting with lawmakers and traveling the country to raise awareness about child marriage, Ms. Reiss and other supporters of Unchained at Last will frequently protest in front of statehouses dressed in bridal gowns and veils, with chains around their wrists.

There are signs the movement is having an impact. 

Since Delaware became the first state to outlaw marriage under the age of 18, with no exceptions, in 2018, another 25 states have strengthened laws about the minimum age of marriage, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. Kansas, Michigan, and Maine are among several other states with pending legislation that would ban all marriages before age 18.

The shift among state lawmakers includes an awareness that if minors wed, they often face devastating economic, educational, physical, and emotional consequences.

Susan Landmann
Unchained at Last founder and Executive Director Fraidy Reiss (center, in wedding gown) leads supporters at a “chain-in” protesting child marriage on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston in 2017.

Girls or young women who marry before age 19 are 50% more likely to drop out of high school and only 25% as likely to complete college, according to Unchained. Additionally, girls who marry before they turn 16 are about 31% more likely to end up in poverty, and they face serious health risks, including death due to early and closely spaced pregnancies. 

Young people under age 18 have few legal rights. As more than one expert explained, minors can’t enter contracts, they can’t hire a lawyer, they can’t go to shelters if the marriage is abusive, and in some states police will treat married girls as runaways and return them to homes they are trying to escape.

A shifting patchwork in state laws

In July, New York became the sixth state to raise the age of consent for marriage to 18, without exceptions.

Even some states with high rates of child marriage – such as Nevada, Arkansas, Kentucky, Utah, and Mississippi – have tightened their laws. For example, in Utah, children could once marry as young as age 16 with parental consent and as young as 15 with both parental and judicial consent. In 2019 that was changed so 16- and 17-year-olds could marry only if they had both parental and judicial consent.

Not all states are embracing stricter legislation, or at least not quickly. In some states, there is support but it’s not a legislative priority. In other states, such as California and Louisiana, some lawmakers and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union maintain that it’s government overreach to decide age appropriateness when it comes to marriage. Still others have argued that it’s unnecessary to raise the marriage age to 18 since there are already existing laws that protect girls from exploitation.

But according to Lisa Jean Moore, a sociology and gender studies professor at Purchase College in New York, throughout history norms of marriage – including child marriage – have commonly emerged from patriarchal systems that viewed women and girls as little more than property. 

“There is also a culture of vast sexual exploitation of children in the country,” says Ms. Moore, “and lawmakers can look at this [allowing for child marriage] as a twisted way of protecting girls.”

The laws are “twisted,” as Ms. Moore and other proponents of ending the practice say, because they can be used to force young victims of rape who become pregnant to marry their adult perpetrators. Additionally, child marriage subjects minors to state-sanctioned statutory rape. According to federal law, it is a defense for the crime of statutory rape of a minor under age 16 if the people are married to each other.

“They are ‘get out of jail free’ laws,” says Max Robins, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Students Against Child Marriage. 

A double major in political and data science, the American University student first learned about the issue back in 2017 when he read about it in a national newspaper.

The nonprofit has grown quickly since its launch in 2019. Today, with chapters at universities and high schools across the country, it teams up with other advocacy groups like Unchained to convince legislators to change marriage laws.  

“There is definitely a bit of American exceptionalism when it comes to the issue – the idea that it happens in other countries, but not here,” says Mr. Robins. “However, once there is an awareness about it, it’s a bipartisan subject that legislators can get behind.”

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