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Child Marriage: Still Legal in 48 States

*Trigger/Content Warning: Sexual Assault and Rape*

Child marriage is defined as marriage between two people when one or both are a minor. Only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, set the age of 18 as the minimum age to marry, with no exceptions. 

When you hear the term “child brides”, the average thought that comes to mind for Americans is that of olden-time institutions or in developing countries. While those thoughts are not necessarily incorrect, it is incredibly important to understand how frequent child marriages are in the United States. Reports show that over 200,000 minors married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. Child marriage in the United States is an incredibly common and perfectly legal fact of modern American life. Without consent from either a guardian and/or a judicial party, the legal age for marriage is 18 in all but one state (Mississippi). In spite of this, it is still very easy and common to obtain marriage licenses for minors all throughout the country. For thirteen states, there is no official minimum age for minors to get married, though this does not mean absolutely anyone can get married. Some of these “loopholes” for early marriage are only possible if the girl has been impregnated or other “special circumstances”. 

What is the harm in child-marriages?

Organizations like UNICEF, the Tahirih Justice Center, Girls Not Brides USA and Unchained At Last are attempting to put a full ban on child marriages in the U.S. Popular teen television shows like Glee and The Secret Life of an American Teenager often paint child marriages (or marriages while in high school) in an attractive light; the idea that this young couple is so in love that nothing will stop them from legally binding their love and staying together forever. It’s supposed to be a fairy tale, but in reality, child marriages are much darker. According to statistics reported by Forbes Magazine, child brides are “separated from their families and friends, and 50 percent more likely to drop out of school.” It has been proven that marriages of minors “doubles a teenager's chances of living in poverty and triples the likelihood she'll be beaten by her spouse, compared to married adults.”

One of the most harrowing loopholes that child marriages provide is the allowance for statutory rape that would not be allowed in any other circumstance. To put it simply, the age of consent is older than the age to get married. Therefore, if a grown man has sex with a 15 year old, he would avoid statutory rape charges if the girl in question is legally married to the man. From a statistic standpoint, a whopping 91% of girls married between 2000 and 2010 were married to adults where the difference in age would have constituted statutory charges. 

In the case of Sherry Johnson, the Florida girl was only eight years old when she was raped and impregnated by an official at her church. The CNN article about her life reads: “Raped at 8 and pregnant at 10, she was forced to marry her rapist at 11.” Between the time she and her rapist had been married and when she divorced him at age 17, she had already had six kids. Like many young child brides, she dropped out of school. However, Johnson’s story does not end there. Since then, she has worked tirelessly  “lobbying lawmakers to stop the kind of abuse she suffered in her childhood” in her home state of Florida. Johnson was critical in a proposed bill that would set the minimum age for marriage in Florida to 18, with no exceptions.

While Sherry Johnson’s story is one of incredible strength and bravery, her story is a strong reminder of the ties between child marriages and human trafficking. Take this blurb published by the Human Trafficking Search in 2017: 

“If a girl is under the age of 18, she cannot legally obtain counsel to handle her divorce case or file paperwork without the consent of her guardian—which is often the husband she is trying to leave. More practically, a minor is often too young to get a driver’s license, sign an apartment lease or get a full-time job. Homeless shelters do not accept minors and instead are required by law to call the police to report a runaway. A girl trying to escape an abusive or difficult domestic situation does not legally have an options or access social services without a parent or guardian’s consent. Many times it’s the girl’s parents who push for the early marriage, if they refuse to help the girl leave the marriage, she is often stuck in an unhappy or violent marriage until she reaches 18 years old.”

Progress in legislature is slowly but surely coming along. In 2018, Delaware became the first state to set the absolute minimum age of marriage to 18. As in the case in Florida with Sherry Johnson, similar stories of survivors fighting for and making progress towards change are occurring rapidly. Founder and executive director of the non-profit organization “Unchained at Last”, Fraidy Reiss, had a similar story of spousal abuse at a young age, and now spends her time helping other youth in similar situations and fighting for legislation change. The organization wrote a bill to help domestic abuse victims file restraining orders against their abusers in New Jersey that was passed in 2014, and in 2018, the state became the second state in the US to ban child marriage. One of Reiss’ most recent efforts is in ending visas being approved for child brides.

In twenty states, similar bills that would raise the minimum age of marriage are being considered and contested. However, it is not all to age of adulthood (which is the main factor in situations of statutory rape and obtaining divorce paperwork). For example, in New Hampshire, a recent bill was passed that would raise the minimum legal age of marriage for girls from thirteen to sixteen. 

Much of the pro-child marriage argument stems from the instances of pregnancy, and often with hopes to prevent abortion. In the case of one American thirteen year old, Dawn Tyree, who was raped and impregnated by an adult family friend, her conservative parents told her that abortion was not an option, and that marriage to the man was the best solution. 

Before New Jersey’s bill on a total ban of underage marriage was passed, the main opposition came mainly from the then governor, Chris Christie, who argued that a complete ban would “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.” He has since left office and the bill has been passed.

The state of child marriage in the world and in America can certainly feel grim, but it is important to remember that there are many organizations and politicians working tirelessly to put and end to child marriage especially in relation to human trafficking. In Charlotte alone, there are dozens of different organizations to help with these causes specifically. A simple Google search of anti- human trafficking organizations in Charlotte loads roughly 300,000 results. Some good places to get involved with include, but is not limited to, End Slavery in Charlotte, Lily Pad Haven, and Project No Rest. 

Below is a link to a PDF of NC anti-trafficking organizations you can get involved with. 


Claire Hambrick is a freshman at UNC Charlotte with a passion for photography, social justice activism, and journalism. Her photography instagram can be found at @cehambrickphotos.
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