A 12-year-old can no longer get married in Virginia, thanks to a new law that went into effect Friday.
The state now has a minimum marriage age of 18, or 16 if a child is emancipated by court order. The new law replaces policies that allowed girls as young as twelve to marry if they had parental consent and were pregnant.
Virginia is one of several states this year to take steps to replace lax marriage laws that are now seen as antiquated and even dangerous, as similar bills have been introduced in California, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
The phrase "child bride" typically conjures up imagery of religious rituals in developing countries. But as World Policy Forum data highlights, when it comes to child marriage laws, the US and Canada more closely align with countries such as Niger and Bolivia than they do with most other industrialized Western nations.
Across the country, states generally set the marriage age at 18. However, most states allow 16- or 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent, and many allow children younger than 16 to marry with parental or judicial consent.
"We think we're so sophisticated, so progressive and ahead of the times, and yet we still see this barbaric behavior," Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D), sponsor of a bill in New York that would ban marriage altogether for people under the age of 18, told The New York Times.
It's true that child marriage is not as common in the US as it is in countries with similar laws. By 2002, just one-tenth of 1 percent of American girls between the ages of 15 and 17 were married; in Niger, 39 percent of girls are married by the age of 18, and in Bolivia, 22 percent are.
But it happens in some parts of the US more frequently than some may think. In Virginia, for example, 4,500 children under age 18 were married between 2004 and 2013. More than 200 of those children were 15 or younger.
In New Jersey, 3,481 children were married between 1995 and 2012. Most were 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 163 were between ages 13 and 15, requiring the approval of a judge. And 91 percent of the children were married to adults.
"The common assumption we are seeing is the belief that child marriages don't happen that often – and when they do, it's believed they are Romeo-and-Juliet-aged peers, which is not what we are seeing happen here," Jeanne Smoot, senior policy counsel for the legal advocacy group Tahirih Justice Center, told The Christian Science Monitor's Lisa Suhay in March.
Advocates such as Ms. Smoot say that laws permitting young teenagers to marry often encourage forced marriage, human trafficking and statutory rape disguised as marriage. These "marriages" can result in physical, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse, and lead to mental health problems.
Furthermore, when children marry, they are 50 percent less likely to finish high school, four times less likely to go to college, and more likely to have children sooner and more closely spaced than people who marry as adults, Smoot says.
So why has it taken so long for the issue to reach US lawmakers?
It could simply be a lack of awareness. In a viral video published in February, YouTuber Coby Persin conducted an experiment in which he had a 65-year-old man stand in Times Square with his fake 12-year-old "bride." Reactions from bystanders ranged from disgusted to outraged, with several threatening to call the police despite the man's insistence that the marriage was legal.
"Mostly the response [from lawmakers] is, 'I can't believe this is happening in my state. We have to stop it,'" Fraidy Reiss, head of the nonprofit Unchained at Last, who pushed for legislation in New Jersey, told The New York Times.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R), who sponsored the bill in Virginia, said she hadn't been aware of the issue until constituents sought her help when a man in his 50s was suspected of having sex with a high school student. To avoid facing prosecution, man obtained the permission of the parents and married the girl. It was the second time he'd used this strategy; the first marriage had ended in divorce.
One common denominator between many child marriages that contributes to the lack of visibility is that many of them take place within closed communities, Smoot says.
"Whenever you have a community that is closed, where it's difficult to reach outside it, where there are great stakes to oppose community norms, that contributes to child marriage happening," she told NPR, citing as an example some polygamous communities in the American West that consider themselves "fundamentalist Mormons," despite engaging in activities not sanctioned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Because of the social isolation of these communities, outside adult figures like teachers and administrators may not be aware that their students are in such situations, Ms. Reiss says.
As awareness of child marriages and their consequences continues to grow, advocates are hopeful that Virginia will serve as a model for other states that currently have laws permitting young teenagers to marry.
"We hope that legislators will see the efforts in Virginia as a wake-up call about how their laws can facilitate forced marriages of children," Smoot told the Washington Post.