Updated: Oct 19, 2021
One in five children in the world is married.
In the United States, more than 200,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2015, of which 87% are female and 86% are married to an adult. Child marriage in some form is legal in every state except for Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. These states require those getting married to be 18 years of age or older, with absolutely no exceptions. In the rest of the 46 states the minimum age to be married may be 18, but with exceptions. A child can be married with a judge’s permission, parental consent, or if a child is pregnant or has given birth. A varying number of these requirements must be met state by state, however, one important thing that is usually not required is the consent of the child.
The reason this goes so unnoticed in American society is due to the extreme lack of education on the extensive history that continually presents itself in our laws, and our daily lives. The overlap of early and present American mindsets is what shapes child marriage in America today.
Child marriage in the United States is not a new a new concept. The U.S. Census Bureau did not record age and marriage until 1880, and in that year, 11.7% of 15-19 year old girls were married. This percentage then fluctuated throughout United States history, dropping during the Great Depression, rising again after World War 2, and once again dropping after the 1960’s. This rising and falling action is due to a number of factors, mostly the fact that relationships strain during economic hardship, and spike after the return of soldiers from war. In early America, marriages between adult men and female children were not unusual, as was customary for many other parts of the world during the same time period.
The definition of marriage changed from being more of an economic necessity to a union between people who loved each other. People often married out of economic necessity to combine wealth, along with the fact that single women were often not able to seek higher positions of employment. Children started gaining protective laws protecting them from abuse and child labor, showing that they were categorized differently from adults and require specialized protections. This new separation between adults and children was the final push for the new American way of thinking: marriage between a child and an adult is wrong.
Parental consent or birth certificates were often faked until around the 1950’s, when states tightened laws around age minimums and documents needed to get married. However, states also added legal exceptions permitting teenage mothers to wed during the baby boom after World War 2. This dated decision is what allows parental consent and pregnancy to remain as factors that exempt children from the minimum age requirement.
As the United States moved into the early 20th century and onward, child marriages became increasingly inappropriate. A boom of publicity around males who married young female teens gradually increased the shock factor of just how often, and how young, these girls were getting married. In 1929, 51 year old New York real estate multimillionaire Edward Browning wed 15 year old Frances Belle Heenan. This coming after a series of ‘adoption’ scandals he had after divorcing his first wife and placing an ad asking to adopt a 14 year old girl, as a ‘companion’ to the child he had custody over. Rumors spread that this was not the sole reason he wanted to adopt a young girl. As decades passed, other stories were publicized. A 22 year old marrying a 9 year old in Tennessee in 1938, and when 22 year old Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year old cousin in 1958.
Pedophilia became significantly relevant in America during the 80’s and 90’s, especially in light of the marriage between 27 year old R. Kelley and 15 year old Aaliyah in 1994. Pedophilia is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a psychiatric disorder in which an adult has sexual fantasies about or engages in sexual acts with a prepubescent child”. Though sexual attraction to minors is now categorized as a mental disorder and committing sexual acts on a minor as an adult is now illegal, therapy to treat pedophilia or laws to punish those committing acts were non existent, and are still limited to this day. Thus pedophilic action went unpunished, and therapy was unavailable. Stigmas around seeking help through therapy also contributed to the severe lack of assistance available.
Currently in the United States, there are a number of organizations advocating against the widely unregulated marriage of children such as Girls Not Brides and Unchained at Last. The United States also continues to sign UN statements on the matter such as the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution and the 2013 and 2014 UN General Assembly resolutions on child, early and forced marriage. However one of the most crucial, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was signed by the United States in 1981, yet never ratified. The statement requires states to ensure full consent in marriage.
Marriage bureau clerks currently have no authority to intervene if they notice a child’s lack of consent to a marriage. Though there are minimum age requirements in some states, if the child is impregnated there is no longer a minimum age protection. This leads to groomed children being married to their abusers and impregnated children married to their rapists.
Minors do not have the same legal rights and freedoms as those over 18. In most states, people cannot take legal actions until they are over 18. This means that children who need to get out of these marriages do not have the right to file for divorce, and they cannot run away from home. In many states, one can receive criminal charges for running away as a minor. Domestic violence centers also do not take anyone under the age of 18.
On the federal level, some action has been taken. In 2016, the State Department adopted the Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, which aims to end child marriages and focus on the needs of married girls globally. This strategy meets the requirements of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 which enforces a multi-year and multifaceted plan to end child marriage. Much of the plan surrounds combating violence against women, which is a root cause of child marriages, through child rape or sexual assult. The plan also aims to provide improved shelters and insurance coverage for help sought. The government has also released programs such as Let Girls Learn (no longer being updated) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These programs work toward providing for children who get caught in arranged marriages, and push for education as to why child marriage is wrong.
These efforts prove effective, as child marriage rates in the U.S. continue to decline, however vocalization of the problem will not be enough to stop it. 46 states still allow child marriage to some extent. 92% of all U.S. states still allow children to be married off. Again, 86% of all child marriages are between a child and an adult. If lawmakers put more time and focus into combatting this problem, in the near future we could see child marriage rates fall to 0% nationwide.
Through Teen Lenses: Why do you feel child marriage rates in America often go unnoticed, and what would be the most effective way for elected officials to put more emphasis on this issue?
“I feel like the child marriage rates in America are widely hidden because it is a stereotypically ‘third world’ issue. you mainly hear about child marriage in countries such as India and Nepal, which are considered third world countries and are not ‘modernized’ enough. I feel like this should definitely be a state to state issue, especially in places where polygamy and child marriage are more prevalent such as Utah. this issue is very much so in the shadows and it needs publicity for there to be any change.” – Preeti Kulkarni, 15, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Rockville MD
“Child marriage rates are hidden in America because we are supposed to be a first world country so no one talks about these things. I think officials need to put tighter regulations on this FEDERALLY, I don’t see why it needs to be different state to state.” – Ayan Ghosh, 15, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville MD
“I think that child marriage rates in America are often hidden because our country is held to a much higher standard than other third world countries and as a result any statistic that tarnishes our reputation is hidden from the general public. This issue should absolutely be emphasized more because it is important for us as Americans to be less ignorant and understand the issues within our own nation. We must bring light to this subject in order for change to follow.” – Vishal Jain, 15, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Potomac MD
“I think that child marriage rates in America are often hidden because America is usually occupied in being a first world country and does not receive any attention on the topic. As Americans we need to acknowledge these problems and we should be emphasized more instead of being ignorant. Third world countries have different issues but this topic is one that we should simply not ignore.” – Shazeb Hasan, 15, Colonel Zadok Magruder High School, Derwood MD