Table of Contents
- The Definition of Child Marriage
- The Impact of Child Marriage: Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse
- Loopholes in Current Laws on Child Marriage
- Negative Impact of Child Marriage on Child's Health
- Health Risks of Early Motherhood
- Works Cited
When people think about child marriage, the first thing that usually comes to their mind is third world countries and they associate the issue with them, as if it was the problem of a different world that could not affect them in any way. Unfortunately, third world countries are not the only places where child marriages are happening today. Due to a lack of a federal law in the United States preventing underage marriage, child marriages are still legal in the majority of the states, which can lead to serious consequences. Underage marriage should be made illegal on a federal level without any exceptions, because domestic violence and sexual abuse are more common within underage marriages than in marriages between people that are over 18, because the current exceptions that are in the laws made by the states can result in forced marriages, and because getting married as a child can lead to serious health issues.
The Definition of Child Marriage
First of all, the meaning of underge or child marriage has to be defined. Child marriage can be defined as either a formal or an informal marriage that happens between one minor and an adult, or between two minors (“Child marriage”). This essay will focus primarily on the effects of child marriage in which the underage person is the girl, as currently 12 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year (“What Impact Child”), and mainly on marriages between young girls and older men. The first focus point will be the issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse within underage marriages, as it is unfortunately a common problem that needs to be talked about.
The Impact of Child Marriage: Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse
Getting married below the age of 18 has terrible consequences on minors, and one of the most disgusting effects of it is domestic violence, as according to Luzer research shows that domestic violence is 9% more common within underage marriages than non underage marriages, totaling 29% of the surveyed people who married as children, as opposed to the 20% reported by the people who married later. This is a significant amount, which shows that there is a tendency for young girls to suffer from domestic violence if they get married before they turn 18. This is a very serious issue that needs to be talked about more often, especially since underage married people are unable to file for divorce, making it extremely difficult or in some cases nearly impossible to get out of these abusive marriages (Gunaratna). According to Gunaratna while children are legally allowed to get married before the age of 18, they are not allowed to initiate legal action, in other words, while they are allowed to get married, they are not allowed to file for divorce in many states. Due to the fact that after an underage person gets married, they are defined as a runaway, it is also not legally possible for social services to help these children, meaning that even if they are able to reach out to an organization that was formed to help these children, they still might not be able to help them. Both of these factors together lead to children being unable to escape from their marriage without literally escaping from their partners. Unfortunately, there are many people who have no other options but to do exactly that, and while there are a number of organizations that are trying to help these runaways, it is still not easy for them to get away from their abuser. This could also potentially lead to the abuser being more empowered, as they might be aware of these factors and hence know that their wives have no other option but to suffer in silence.
Based on research conducted by Kidman, the reason why domestic violence is more common within underage marriages other than the imbalance of power between the two people, is that most girls who are married before they turn 18 are socially vulnerable, meaning that they are uneducated and underprivileged, and they usually tend take on more traditional gender norms. All of this combined leads to a dominant male partner and a submissive female partner in these marriages, which is a very bad combination when it comes to the tendency to domestic violence.
Alongside the issue of suffering from domestic violence, underage girls who marry older men will also more likely suffer from sexual abuse, due to the imbalance of power between the couple, thus not surprisingly most girls in underage marriages define their first sexual intercourse as one without consent (“Violence against Girls”). Sexual abuse is a topic that one is not happy to talk about, but it is necessary to talk about it. When it comes to underage marriages and sexual assault, it is an especially hard topic, especially since it technically counts as statutory rape. Statutory rape is defined as having sexual intercourse with a person younger than the age of consent, but this age varies states by state as well (Baldwin). To rephrase this, many child marriages are essentially organized rape that happen between older men and young girls who are unable to defend themselves due to their physical differences and due to their legal rights. As stated before, these girls are unable to divorce their husbands due to conflicting laws, leaving them completely vulnerable to their husbands’ ill doings, and leaving them no other option than to suffer in silence and try to survive the assaults that they have to bear.
Altogether this means that girls who are married before the age of 18 are more likely to suffer from domestic violence and sexual abuse, all the while they are not able to do anything about because the law is not on their side, which can lead to them running away and seeking help from others – which might not always be possible-, or they stay in their toxic marriage and suffer in silence, which might then lead to psychological consequences, which will be discussed later. Unfortunately, young girls might experience abuse even before they get married, as in some cases the abuse starts with the marriage itself, since forced marriages are unfortunately not uncommon between child marriages, which is the topic that will be discussed in the next section.
Loopholes in Current Laws on Child Marriage
Underage marriage should be made illegal on a federal level because the current laws that are created by the states grant too many loopholes for forced marriages. According to “Marriage laws”, the legal age to get married without any special reasons is 18 in most of the states, but unfortunately there are exceptions to this law, for example, if one of the parties is pregnant or already has a child, if they have parental consent, or if a judge decides that the marriage should take place. When these exceptions apply, there is no minimum age restriction in for example Mississippi and California among many other states, and even in the states where there is an age limit, it is usually around 16. There isn’t much official data available about the numbers of child marriages in the United States, but according to Harmon, between 2000 and 2015, there were at least 200.000 underage marriages registered nationwide.
Unfortunately forced marriages are not uncommon between these marriages. One of the reasons behind this is a lack of age restriction when it comes to sponsoring a fiance visa, which means that if one would like to receive a fiance visa with someone who is underage and is a resident of the United States, they can legally request and receive it, even when there is a significant age difference between the minor participant and the immigrant (Clark). This could lean to arranged and forced marriages, most likely organized by the parents or the immigrants. This is one way for illegal immigrants to get into the United States relatively easily.
As the legal age to marry with a parental concept or a permission from the court is below 18 in most states, forced marriages are more common in the United States than one would think. About 95% of people affected by this issue are girls, and 77% of these girls are married to men that are so much older than them that technically makes the marriage statutory rape based on the law of several states (“Child Marriage Statistics”). It is obvious that most of these girls do not get married on their own will, and even if they do, it is clear that they should not be allowed to do so. Children do not have enough experience in relationships and with people in general to be able to decide to get married logically, and they should not be allowed to do so until they turn 18, especially because they are more easily manipulated due to their innocence and vulnerability.
Other than being forced by the partner of the minor in question or a third person, there are other factors that could cause underage people to be forced to get married as well. One example could be getting pregnant, as many teenage girls would get married to avoid the stigma that comes with giving birth without being married, especially at a young age (Wulfhorst). Getting pregnant might cause the families of the minor to push them to get married as well due to the same reason. Both cases would make young girls feel like they have no other option than to marry their children’s father, essentially forcing themselves into an underage marriage.
All in all, there should be no exceptions when it comes to underage marriage because people are abusing the loopholes and forcing underage people to get married. There should be a federal law that makes child marriage illegal in all cases to minimize the possibility of forced marriages for people that are under the age of 18.
Negative Impact of Child Marriage on Child's Health
Lastly, child marriage should be illegal, because it has negative consequences on the child’s health. This section will first discuss the mental health issues and then the physical health issues that can be caused by underage marriage. According to Hamilton, people who get married before the age of 18 suffer serious consequences, for example, they are 50% less likely to finish high school and they have a smaller chance of graduating from college. Unfortunately these consequence seem minor compared to the health issues that they might suffer, as for example they have a higher chance of suffering from mental issues.
Even though child marriages are most common in poor, rural areas and in places where the majority of people are conservative and highly religious (“Why America Permits”), the consequences of it are the same for everyone. According to Fox, underage marriage has a bad effect on every minor’s mental health, regardless of their socioeconomic groups. She states that common examples of mental health issues between teen wives are “major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and anti-social personality disorder”. She also discusses that this is most likely caused because teenagers already have a very fragile mental health, and on top of that as stated before, they are more likely to suffer from abuse, which is a combination that grants long term mental health issues. Along of these serious mental disorders, girls married as children may also suffer from a feeling of isolation and rejection as a result of the difference of the power between them and their husband and because most of them take the role of a traditional wife, they might stay at home and thus they would only meet with their husband most of the time (Nour).
While there are not many studies that concentrate only on the mental health issues caused by underage marriages, there is a lot more material concerning the physical health issues that happen as a consequence of child marriage due to the fact that they are more easily recognizable. While the most common physical health issues caused by child marriages in third world countries are issues such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (“What Impacts Child”), the physical issues that are most common in the United States are different. While sexually transmitted diseases can also be a consequence of child marriage in the United States, more common negative effects of it can be diabetes, heart attack, stroke and even cancer due to the high amount of stress that these young wives are under (“Child Devastating Consequences”).
Health Risks of Early Motherhood
Another negative effect of child marriage can be the health risks that come with early motherhood. As stated before, many young wives are uneducated and therefore did not have access to sex education either. According to “Raising Adolescent Pregnancy”, teenage pregnancies are more common in places where there are more underage marriages, meaning that underage marriages lead to a higher number of teenage pregnancies. Becoming pregnant at an early age can have serious life-threatening consequences, meaning that in an ideal world the number of teenage pregnancies would be negligible. Unfortunately today that is not the case, and teenage pregnancy is one of the consequences of underage marriage. According to “Motherhood Adolescent Pregnancy”, even with the rapid development of new technologies, complications during childbirth are still one of the dominant causes of the untimely death of older teenagers. Other physical issues may include malnourishment due to the fact that the majority of people involved in underage marriages live in poverty, which could then lead to premature birth or stillbirth among other serious health issues. These pregnant teenagers at the time of the childbirth will also most likely have to bear an extremely long and hard labor, which could potentially result in other health-related problems as well.
Ultimately this means that getting married before the age of 18 could result in serious, life-altering health issues, and could sometimes even lead to the untimely death of young girls. Young wives who got married before they should have tend to suffer from mental disorders and are likely to suffer from physical problems as well. Unfortunately one of the most dangerous and life-threatening issue that they could face is teenage pregnancy, which could have lethal consequences as well.
As a conclusion, the minimum age to get married in the United States should be raised to 18 on a federal level, because minors who get married before they turn 18 are more likely to suffer from domestic violence and sexual abuse from their husbands, because the current system facilitates forced marriages, and because minors can suffer from serious health issues if they are married as a child. Child marriage should be looked at as a human rights issue, and the United States should do everything in its power to eliminate it. To get rid of the issues that come from underage marriages, the federal government should ban all underage marriages without any exceptions. By granting this, many young girls could be saved from abusive, unhappy marriages and lives, and more importantly, this law could literally save lives. Additionally, today’s adolescents are what will shape the future of society, thus we should grant them a law that prevents others from taking away their childhood together with their future to ensure a generation of happy people.
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