Uncovering The Secret Shame Of American Child Brides

We think that child brides only exist in other, far away places where forced marriages are more common.

Sheryl Johnson was only eleven when she was forced to marry her rapist, a deacon, almost a decade older then her, from the apostolic church her family belonged too. This eleven-year-old girl did not live in a developing country where little protections exist for children. This happened in America.

We think that child brides only exist in other, far away places where forced marriages are more common.

Contrary to the general misconception that this is illegal in the US, underage marriages remain widespread.

Between 2000-2010 approximately 250,000 children were married in the US; 87% of them were young girls marrying older men. The number of child marriages is likely even higher given that ten states failed to provide statistics on how many children were married within their jurisdiction. Some of these children were still in elementary school. 

In Tennessee, three ten-year-old girls married men ages 24, 25, and 31, and a 27-year-old woman married an eleven-year-old boy. In Alabama, a 14-year-old girl married a 74-year-old man, and in Idaho, a 17-year-old wed a 65-year-old man. In addition, 51 of these children were 13, and 985 were 14. 

In some states, you have to be eighteen to get married, but every state allows exceptions (such as parental consent, judicial approval, and pregnancy) to these laws and in 25 states there is no minimum age requirement to marry.These legislative failures continue to allow children, overwhelmingly young girls, to be married to older men each year.

Loopholes like these allow middle-aged men to legally marry girls as young as ten.

In any other scenario this would be considered sexual assault/statutory rape, but in the context of these child marriages, it becomes legally sanctioned child abuse.

The problem is not limited to the US. In Canada, Great Britain, and Norway child marriages are also still permitted. 

Ironically, as the US (and Canada) have (rightly) worked with various global efforts to reduce gender violence and child marriage in developing nations, they have failed to examine this issue closer to home.

In March 2016, the Global Strategy To Empower Adolescent Girls initiative was developed by the US State Department to address specific ways to end child and forced marriages and the needs of married girls globally. 

 

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While these important efforts could have a powerful impact on girls lives around the world, the US cannot turn a blind eye to the forced marriages that still occur in this country.

Child marriages are often used to cover up sexual assault or statutory rape, and in many cases, these girls were married before they could even legally consent to sex.

In states where judges need to approve the underage marriage, the judicial process does not function as a safeguard for these children, as judges largely fail to intervene.

In Johnson’s case, her forced child marriage was intended to cover up the repeated rapes and her subsequent pregnancy. “They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal,” reports Johnson. “Instead of putting the handcuffs on him and sending him to prison, they put the handcuffs on me and imprisoned me in a marriage.” 

Freidy Reiss, director of Unchained at Last, an organization committed to “ending forced and child marriage in the United States through direct services and advocacy” was raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and also forced to marry young. Reiss states that the danger to these exceptions to the laws that allow young girls to marry because they are pregnant or because their parent consented is often just a legal mechanism to hide criminal behavior. 

“In many cases, the pregnancy is the result of sexual abuse and the parents are forcing the girl to marry to prevent a scandal. So the law doesn’t protect the child at all. When an adult man has sex with an underage girl, this is considered statutory rape in many states. But when the perpetrator marries his victim, he can legally go on abusing her.”  

While far more prevalent in conservative, religious, poor, and rural communities, child marriage can happen in other areas as well. Children at-risk and those living in homes with unstable caregivers are also vulnerable to being “married off.” 

Jeanne L. Smoot, senior council for Tahirih Justice Center reports that giving many parents the option to consent to an underage marriage “ignores how vulnerable children are to force and coercion" and "empowers exploitative or unfit parents with final say-so.” 

The judicial approval exception also give judges “unfettered discretion” reports Smoot. Smoot also raises important questions on the judicial systems ability to accurately detect abuse during the application for a marriage license process. “If it’s subjective decision making and decades-old assumptions that are informing the [judge’s view of the] best interests of a girl,” the court may hastily determine “it’s better to get her married.”

Donna Pollard, now 34, from Kentucky, was married at sixteen to a 30-year-old man. Pollard, who was reportedly having a hard time and grieving the loss of her father when she was 14, met an older man and he pressured her to get married when she turned 16. Her mother gave the court permission.

“She was happy to get rid of me,” reports Pollard.

After the marriage, things devolved quickly. Pollard’s husband became abusive and tried to choke her in front of their child.

“He became physically abusive. He was controlling everything I did. In many ways, child marriage and human trafficking are interchangeable terms."

Girls in this position are legally imprisoned — they are deemed old enough to marry, but not old enough to file for divorce, rent an apartment, so on.  

“I tried to leave more than once, but because I had not yet reached the age of 18, the age of true adulthood, apartment complexes would not rent to me because I could not enter into a contract. I was trapped” Pollard states.

The judicial system also failed to protect *Nicole. When she was 16, her late grandmother pressured her into marrying a 25-year-old man in California. A judge signed off on the marriage with no questions asked. 

“I really thought that they were going to pull me aside and I was going to be able to back out of it. I was expecting someone to ask questions, especially because of my age,” Nicole recalls.

These women, and thousands of others, experience the profound trauma of marrying young each year.

Research shows that marrying as a child/adolescent has devastating consequences. Child brides have a 31% percent higher chance of living in poverty, are 50% more likely to drop out of school, and three times as likely to have at least five children. The World Policy Analysis Center also reports that child marriage “jeopardizes girls health due to abuse, limited control over their own bodies and their sexual and reproductive health decisions, and early pregnancy and childbearing.” In addition, women married before the age of 18 are three times more likely to be abused by their partner than women married over age 21. 

“Marriage put a definite end to my childhood. I was expelled from school, and by the age of 17, I had six children. There was no way I could escape. You are not allowed to sign legal documents when you are under 18, so I couldn’t file for a divorce. For seven years, I was stuck with the man who damaged me,” says Johnson.

Even though Johnson, now 58, was forced to marry her rapist in Florida in 1971, loopholes permitting child marriage have largely remained unchanged for nearly fifty years. In Florida alone, 16,000 children were married between 2000-2015. Johnson began working with state politicians and waged a campaign to end this practice in Florida. The first bill failed in the state legislature in 2014, but in 2018, Florida finally passed a bill putting more restrictions on underage marriages.

More states have begun to pass similar legislation. In May 2018, Delaware became the first state to ban marriage under the age of 18. In June 2018, New Jersey followed suit. Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill into law requiring residents to be 18 to get a marriage license — previous attempts to pass this legislation in NJ were vetoed by then NJ Republican Governor Chris Christie. Recently, NY, TX, VA, CT, and a few other states have also passed stricter laws aimed at limiting underage marriage. These changes are an important start, but far too many US states have yet to pass legislation addressing underage marriage. 

Some of the states with new legislation still permit exceptions to the law. They didn't address the continued risk of parental coercion. Nor did they enforce stricter safeguards during the judicial approval process.

The US cannot work to fight child marriages globally, while continuing to allow this to happen at home. 

Heather Barr, a senior researcher at the Humans Rights Watch, states that "the United States could help ensure that Western countries lead by example by cleaning their own houses.” 

It is far past time that the US live up to their assertion of being a nation that protects minors — anything less is being complicit in the continued abuse of children.


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