Child marriage is a bigger issue in America than you think

Child marriage is a bigger issue in America than you think

Clutching a small bouquet of roses, dressed in a strapless white gown, make-up perfectly applied and hair expertly tousled, a 16-year-old girl approaches an altar. Waiting for her is a 50-something man. But he is not a proud father ready to walk his baby down the aisle. No, he is about to become her husband. She may look old for her age, but make no mistake, she is far from ready to be a wife, something she will come to admit in time. You may have heard of the groom, the actor Doug Hutchinson, who made headlines around the world (and committed career suicide) when he married aspiring singer Courtney Stodden in 2011, in a Las Vegas wedding that had to be approved by her mother. 

Child marriage is a topic often associated with the developing world, but even in today's America the practice is not something confined to movie stars with lives detached from reality. Indeed it is only too real for a surprisingly high number of young people across the country. According to a survey completed by Unchained at Last, an advocacy group working to end child marriage in the USA, a total of 207,468 under 18s were married in the USA between 2000 and 2015. Given that 10 states submitted either incomplete or no data to the survey, accurate figures are believed to be much higher, potentially closer to the 250,000 mark.

Across America, the official legal age for marriage is 18, apart from in Nebraska and Mississippi, where it is set at 19 and 21 respectively. However, every single state allows exceptions to this rule, for example in the case of pregnancy or where parental consent is obtained, with some states allowing marriage from age 13. Some 25 states have no set rules whatsoever as to the minimum age a person can be when they get married, although in these cases, legal conditions have to be met and approved by a judge. Despite the legal requirements being intended to safeguard children, during the lifespan of the survey, judges in 16 different states granted marriage licenses to individuals aged 13 or under.

Girls Not Brides, a London based charity that works to end child marriage around the world, believes the physical and psychological impact of child marriage to be deep and long lasting: “The impact of getting married at such a young age is the same no matter in which country you live. Girls are at risk of school drop out, sexual activity often without consent or contraception, and a myriad of health-related consequences that accompany teenage pregnancy.” In the longer term, lifetime income, economic development and personal autonomy are all greatly affected by child marriage.

Young women are considerably more likely to be married than their male counterparts, with 87 per cent of the under 18s married between 2000 and 2015 being female. Mostly aged 16 to 17 years old, these children were, by default, married to adults rather than to their peers, occasionally with age gaps so large that it’s hard to conceive how any judge would consent to it. In 2001 in Tennessee, three 10-year-old girls were married to men aged 24, 25 and 31. Each of these age gaps is wide enough to warrant statutory rape charges outside of marriage. In 2010, a 17-year-old girl married a 65-year-old man in Idaho, the state with the highest per capita rate of child marriage. 

The state with the most child marriage overall is Texas, which saw over 40,000 child marriages between 2010 and 2014, followed by Florida and Kentucky. In response to the situation, Texas has recently made it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to marry unless they are legally emancipated from their parents, which leaves something of a legal loophole. One state, New Jersey, did try to enact a blanket ban on under 18s marrying. However, the bill - which would have been the first of its kind in the country - was halted when Republican governor Chris Christie refused to sign it because he claimed that it would interfere with religious freedoms. It is important to note here that far from the commonly held perception that these marriages only happen against certain religious or cultural backdrops, this problem exists across all sections of society. A 2015 study focusing on forced child marriages undertaken by Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that provides services to immigrant women and girls in the USA, found examples from the Muslim, Christian (particularly Catholic), Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths.

Nonetheless, it seems that attitudes such as Christie’s are depressingly commonplace. When a 17-year-old in New Hampshire, a state with a legal marriage age of 13, set out to change the law as a result of what she had learnt as part of a Girl Scout project, the reaction from one state representative, David Bates, was part patronising, part terrifying: “We’re asking the Legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project.” One can’t help but wonder whether he would allow his own daughter to marry, and by extension to be vulnerable to what is tantamount to statutory rape, at 13, on the basis of preserving a historic law.

In many cases of underage marriage, there is also fine a line between parental consent and parental coercion. In one disturbing case, a pregnant 11-year-old girl in Florida was forced by her mother to marry her 20-year-old rapist, a member of their church, to avoid him being subject to a criminal investigation. When she was refused a marriage license, her mother simply took her to a neighbouring county, where the license was issued. Now divorced and campaigning for an end to child marriage, Sherry Johnson told The New York Times: “You can’t get a job, you can’t get a car, you can’t get a license, you can’t sign a lease,” she adds, “so why allow someone to marry when they’re still so young?” Admittedly, this case happened in 1971. But in Florida, a child under 16 is still married at a rate of one every few days. 

Family income and geographical location also seem to play a large role in influencing child marriage. Nicholas Syrett, author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, has researched this topic extensively. “Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families, don’t get married young,” he said. “This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”

America is not alone in struggling with this issue. Globally, 117 countries allow under 18s to marry and 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year. If current trends continue, by 2050 the number of women married as children will reach 1.2 billion. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the government estimates that 5000 to 8000 under 18s are at risk of being coerced into marriage every year, recent attempts to move the legal age for all marriages from 16 with parental consent to age 18 failed. In Scotland, parental consent is not required from age 16 onwards. It's food for thought that in Northern Ireland you may get married while still at school, but not as an adult homosexual. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel, for the USA at least. The rates of under 18s being married have declined steadily over the past decade and individual states are taking steps in the right direction by raising minimum legal ages. While child marriage is still permitted in all 50 states, people are at least beginning to have the discussions that question the practice. But let’s be clear about one thing: it is an extremely rare case where a 16-year-old, much less someone younger, is mature enough to deal with marriage - and the power to stop them being put in that position is very much in the hands of parents, lawmakers and governors.