Beneath the Veil: The Reality of Child Marriage in the United States

 /  Nov. 19, 2017, 3:37 p.m.

Yellowstone National Park

As Heather and Aaron faced each other, holding each other’s hands, they each recited their vows, promising to love, cherish, protect and comfort each other. After the ceremony, they smeared wedding cake on each other’s faces, Heather giggling as white icing landed over Aaron’s lip in the shape of a mustache.

By nearly all accounts, the story of Heather and Aaron’s marriage was not unlike any other in their small town surrounded by wheat and potato fields in the valley below Yellowstone National Park. The only difference was that it also happened to be on the day off Heather’s fifteenth birthday, and she was already in the second trimester of her pregnancy. Aaron, the unemployed son of some family friends, was twenty-four and mostly looking for a way to avoid spending the rest of his life in jail. Unfortunately, for as shocking as this story may seem, it is all too common for thousands of minors in America today.

When Congress lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen in 1971, the move was celebrated by young people across the country. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt lowered the minimum draft age to eighteen during World War II, the accepted slogan of student activists had been “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!" Now, it was finally a reality.

Since then, eighteen years of age has become the de facto age of adulthood in almost every state. In a vast majority of states, it marks the age at which a person can sign a lease for an apartment, open a bank account and enlist in the armed forces all without the explicit permission of a parent or legal guardian. Eighteen also marks the minimum the age at which people are allowed to marry, or at least it is intended to.

Complications arise when it comes to the plethora of loopholes and exemptions that exist in all fifty states regarding the legal contract of marriage. For instance, nine states grant special permission for minors who are pregnant or have given birth to a child, according to a report by the Tahirih Justice Center. In other states, children are allowed to marry at any age, so long as there is consent from a parent or legal guardian. When all exceptions are taken into account, a staggering twenty-five states have absolutely zero minimum age requirement for someone to marry.

Consistent exploitation of these loopholes has led to a startlingly high rate of child marriage in the United States, at least compared to other developed countries. According to Unchained At Last, a group campaigning to abolish child marriage, 207,468 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2015. While official figures are difficult to come by, most estimates place this as at least three times higher than the child marriage rate in Western Europe. What’s more, almost 90 percent of minors who married were girls, with some as young as ten years old. Most of the husbands in these cases were not minors, but rather adults in their early to mid twenties. And while a certain amount of minors have been married in every state over the past fifteen years, rates of child marriage are the highest in states with large rural and low-income populations, such as Idaho, Kentucky and West Virginia. Perhaps most worryingly, while the overall rate of child marriage in the United States has declined over this time period, it has remained relatively stagnant in these regions.

In the last two years women’s rights advocates and lawmakers have attempted to rewrite the laws that allow children to marry at such a young age. They believe that the current legal framework fails to protect minors who might be pressured or coerced into marriage, meaning that parents have outsized power to decide when and whom their child should marry. However, these concerns have been met with firm resistance from opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, in response to a recent proposal to completely ban marriage under the age of eighteen in California, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered a stern rebuke, stating that it “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental right of marriage.” Interestingly, New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently vetoed a similar bill in New Jersey on the grounds that it was “not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s opponents and does not comport with the sensibilities … and the religious customs, of the people in this State.” Having to deal with fire from both sides has meant that making any kind of meaningful progress on the issue of child marriage is unlikely at best. “I thought once I point this out and tell people what’s happening in your state, look at these archaic laws. It’s a no-brainer,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last. “I had no idea that it would be this difficult.”

The main obstacle preventing any alterations to the current patchwork of child marriage laws is incompatibility with one of the most revered tenets of our legal system—the right of parental custody. According to the Supreme Court in their decision of Troxel v. Grancille (2000) the right of a parent to have custody over his/her own child is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.” The Court’s statement in that case reaffirmed a biological parent’s right in choosing how to raise their child as they see fit.

However, as can be seen from a number of child marriage cases, what the parent “sees fit” is not always in the best interest the child. Such was the case when Sherri Johnson was married at just eleven years of age. “I got married to my rapist,” Johnson, now in her early sixties, told the BBC in an interview. “Actually my mother saw fit for me to marry him to make the situation of me getting pregnant … to make it look better overall.”

Unfortunately, Sherri’s situation is all too common in states that consider the union of marriage to be more important, at least in legal sense, than age difference when looking at cases of statutory rape. Although Sherri’s state, Florida, would have otherwise prosecuted her husband for engaging in sexual intercourse with a minor, because they were technically husband and wife, the state could do nothing about it. Johnson, who now advocates for stricter child marriage laws in Florida, summed up the twisted irony of the entire situation, stating, “Versus putting the handcuffs on him at twenty years of age, they actually put the handcuffs on me at eleven.”

While the laws in the United States are unlikely to change any time in the near future, several other countries across the world have taken noticeable steps to address the issue of child marriage. For instance, developing countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, and El Salvador have completely banned child marriage altogether, citing its effects on minors, girls in particular, as noticeably detrimental to their health and future success. While each case is different, the overall data proves their point.

Based on nearly every single study conducted on the subject, the practice of child marriage is one of the greatest sources of socioeconomic disparity between men and women in developing countries and for obvious reasons. First, early marriage impedes a young girl’s ability to continue with her education, as most drop out of school to focus their attention on domestic duties and having or raising children. There are also the notable health concerns that arise for girls forced into an early marriage. As it stands, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the main cause of death among adolescent girls in the developing world, with pregnant girls aged fifteen-to-nineteen being twice as likely to die from childbirth as a woman in her twenties. Additionally, child marriage has been statistically linked with higher rates of domestic violence, which can leave young girls both physically and emotionally scarred for life.

While girls in the United States certainly have a higher standard of living to begin with than those in developing countries, they are by no means exempt from the negative effects of child marriage. In both Sherri and Heather’s cases, having children forced them to drop out of school in addition to having to work multiple jobs to keep their families financially stable. “It is really all the time that I think about what I could have done or what I could have been,” said Heather, choking back tears. For Sherri, the prospects seemed equally hopeless. “By sixteen I had six children,” stated Johnson. “That actually was my life, trying to survive and live for them. It wasn’t even about me anymore.”

Both Sherri and Heather are still feeling the effects of having their own childhood stolen from them, but there is little to stop what happened to them happening to children in much of America today. Currently, the State Department considers child marriage to be a “harmful practice with negative health, education and economic repercussions for girls, families and communities.” The United States has also dedicated millions of dollars every year to combating child marriage through the US Agency for International Development. The question that has yet to be answered is if it can muster the same initiative for fixing the problem in its very own backyard.

The image on this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Ajay Chopra


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