WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT CHILD MARRIAGE IN THE UNITED STATES
by Amy Anderson with Heather Tabers
Would you let a 12-year-old marry? The U.S. does.
Sara Tasneem was a 15-year-old girl who dreamed of joining the Air Force and flying a plane. While visiting her father one summer, he introduced her to a 28-year-old man and that afternoon she was forced to marry him. This didn’t happen in a third-world country. It didn’t happen in the 1800s. It happened in California just a few years ago. In fact, the US Census Bureau estimates that there were 13,000 child marriages in California alone in the past five years.
California, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington have no legal minimum age to marry.
When you think of child brides, the countries that you probably envision are one of the six countries that do not specify a minimum age for marriage: Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Countries that are commonly found in the news for human rights violations, democratic suppression, and female suppression. But do you think of the United States—the land of the free and symbol of democratic freedom—as enabling and permitting child brides?
Per a September 2016 Pew Research Center analysis 117 nations out of 198 (including the U.S.) allow children to marry. Child marriage is defined by the UN as a marriage with a party under the age of eighteen. While age 18 is legally the age of majority in the U.S. marking the end of childhood on a federal level; marriageable age is controlled by the individual states and does not necessarily align with the age of consent or the age of majority. Due in part to this federal and state division on child protections, the U.S. has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child which addresses children’s rights to education, health, protection from violence and exploitation, and many other rights. Ratification would mandate the U.S. to strengthen its protection of children and address issues involving the allowance of child brides.
“Approximately sixty thousand [child marriages] occurred at an age or involved a spousal age difference that should have constituted a sex crime. Some were as young as ten.” -Council on Foreign Relations
“At least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21 or older”
In the U.S. an estimated three hundred thousand children were married between 2000 and 2018 (data not accounted for includes: children wed in religious-only ceremonies, children taken overseas to be married, and children married in states that do not provide spousal ages). According to Unchained at Last “at least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21or older” (with a margin for increase as some states do do not report spousal ages), even in states with statutory rape laws.
The U.S. touts itself as a global leader, a forward thinking sponsor of female empowerment, and a denouncer of child marriage abroad. However, the reality is that five states still have no minimum legal marriage age: California, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington. Additionally, every state has parental consent and judicial approval exceptions that can vary widely from the age of consent, and many states still have pregnancy exceptions to the marriage age.
So what can you do? How can you help? Call and/or write your state legislative representatives and ask them to pass legislation to end child marriage. The everyday citizen needs to speak up and promote legislation—often by ongoing pressure to your state’s legislation.
Be a voice for the voiceless!
Sources not cited with in-article links: