Worldwide, 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year. Say “child marriage” and the average American thinks of a developing country, where economic hardship forces parents to marry off their young daughter to a much older man. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 4 in 10 young women marry before age 18. In South Asia, 3 in 10 girls are wed before their 18th birthday.
But child marriage is happening right now in the U.S. And that’s not okay.
More than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015
While there is some evidence that children (mostly girls) are more at risk of child marriage in rural and poorer settings, the fact is that child marriage affects all communities. It is not a “them” issue; it is an “us” issue.
There is no federal law regarding child marriage. Every state sets its own requirements. According to data collected from 41 states, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015.
Child marriage is a harmful practice and a violation of child rights
Parents may believe early marriage is in their daughter’s best interest, especially if she’s pregnant. But the vast majority of girls who marry before age 18 are harmed for life. They’re separated from their families and friends, and 50 percent more likely to drop out of school. Early marriage doubles a teenager’s chances of living in poverty and triples the likelihood she’ll be beaten by her spouse, compared to married adults.
Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women in their 20s, and newborn children of younger mothers face greater risks of dying as well. Between 70 and 80 percent of child marriages end in divorce.
Marrying before age 18 traps girls in a cycle of poverty
That’s why UNICEF believes marriage under age 18 must be prohibited under all circumstances. Partnering with the Tahirih Justice Center, Girls Not Brides USA and Unchained At Last, UNICEF advocates for legislation prohibiting marriage before age 18, with no exceptions.
In May 2018, Delaware became the first state in the U.S. to make it illegal for anyone under age 18 to get married, even with parental consent. New Jersey followed in June 2018. “This is such a personal victory for me — because I’m a forced-marriage survivor, and because I wrote this bill, and because I worked for three years to turn this bill into law,” wrote Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last.
There is much work to be done. Rules vary, but every state in the union except Delaware and New Jersey allows people under the age of 18 to marry once they’ve obtained some combination of a judge’s order, parental permission, premarital counseling or proof of pregnancy.
Earlier this year, Delaware and New Jersey became the first states to outlaw marriage for anyone under the age of 18, with no exceptions
According to a Kansas City Star series of child marriage in the U.S., Missouri has the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed. Only one parent’s signature is required.
More than 1,000 15-year-olds have been married in Missouri since 1999. Even children ages 14, 13 and 12 can marry in Missouri — it’s one of 25 states with no minimum age requirement. For those 14 and younger, a judge’s consent is required.
Missouri is a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old child brides
“A review of some 50,000 marriage licenses shows how Missouri’s lax law has for years turned the state into a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old child brides, often rushing to get married,” the Star reported. “Some traveled up to 1,800 miles to Missouri, from as far off as Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Florida and every other state in the region: Kansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee.”
Woman reveals she was ‘forced’ to marry a 24-year-old at 15
A woman has revealed how she was married off to her 24-year-old boyfriend when she got pregnant at 15, so that he could avoid charges of statutory rape.
Keri, now 21, from South Carolina, was ‘forced’ to marry Paul with her father’s consent in accordance with the law in the southeastern state.
She appears in the upcoming BBC Three documentary America’s Child Brides, which explores ‘legal loopholes’ in the 17 states in which there is no lower age limit for marriage.
Speaking to journalist Ellie Flynn, Keri, whose surname has not been revealed, explains that she and Paul found out he was being investigated by the police after she discovered she was pregnant at the tender age of 15.
She was living with her father, and met Paul through her cousin while celebrating her 15th birthday at a house party.
They had a one night stand and she fell pregnant.
‘It was basically my birthday weekend, hanging out and drinking. And then I got pregnant,’ she reveals.
The legal age of consent in South Carolina is 16, although teenagers as young as 14 are able to consent to sex as long as the partner is 18 or younger.
When Keri and Paul discovered police were investigating him, with the possibility of bringing charges for statutory rape, he decided to explore what’s often referred to as the ‘marry your rapist’ loophole.
He discovered that marrying Keri ‘might make the investigation go away’, so he decided to pop the question.
Keri wasn’t keen to get married, but said that her dad was ‘a drunk’ and that Paul bought him a case of beer in order to convince him to give his permission.