Child Marriage in the United States: Protecting Vulnerable Youth

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Legal Flaws and Lack of Protection in Child Marriage
  • Impact of Child Marriage on Well-being
  • The Need to Reform Child Marriage Laws
  • Conclusion


In 2001, three 10 year-old girls legally married, respectively, three adult men aged twenty-four, twenty-five, and thirty-one. This was not a third world human rights offense. The marriages in question obtained licensing from the state of Tennessee, from within the United States. In 2001, while the official age at which a Tennessean became eligible for marriage was eighteen, exceptions to state law (such as parental consent, proof of pregnancy, etc.) specified no minimum age requirement. Five years later, in 2006, an eleven year-old boy legally married a twenty-seven year-old adult woman--also in Tennessee. Over the course of the decade, from the year 2000 to 2010, approximately 200,000 children between the ages of ten and seventeen would be married in the United States. These children face astronomical rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence, decreased economic and educational opportunity, increased mortality and birth rates, and yet are not afforded the same protections as unwed children and adult spouses. It is time for the United States to end child marriage.

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Legal Flaws and Lack of Protection in Child Marriage

According to the Washington Post, girls married as children are three times more likely than their adult counterparts to get beaten by their spouses. Domestic abuse remains largely under-reported and even more so under-prosecuted within these marriages. This is in part due to the fact that, if the underage spouse seeks refuge in a shelter or the home of a confidante to escape their spouse’s retaliation, their adult spouse can report them as a runaway and have them returned to the marital home. Despite the risks associated with these legal flaws (ex: death, hospitalization, and greater emotional and physical abuse), little has been done to increase protections for married minors, especially being that 86% of child marriages are to an adult spouse. Within a marriage between an adult and a child, the child possesses few rights and even fewer protections. In disgustingly common cases, child marriage is even seen as a means to avoid legal repercussions in regard to sexual abuse and/or misconduct. Each set of state law sets a definition for statutory rape within the jurisdiction, usually involving a minor and an adult more than two years senior; however, according to 18 U.S.C. Section 2243(c)(2), a defense to statutory rape charges is allowed on the basis that “the persons engaging in the sexual act were at the time married to each other”. Similarly, allegations of marital rape are often ignored by the law enforcement community, providing further legal protection for sex offenders. When a girl becomes pregnant by her rapist, the rapist has been known to seek marriage with the girl’s own parents as soon as possible in order to provide defense that the sexual intercourse occurred under marriage sanction. In ultra-conservative religious communities where pregnancy by rape holds a shameful stigma, these unions are far more common. Because of the designation of the law, what is usually rape (either statutory or common definition) is largely permissible within the confines of marriage. Once the child has entered the marriage, marital rape prosecution is almost nonexistent.

Impact of Child Marriage on Well-being

These abuses affect every aspect of the child’s life, and stunt their intellectual, social, emotional, and even physical growth. When a girl is married as a child, she is three times more likely than her peers to birth five or more children over the course of her lifetime, often imposing growth stunting and physical deformities if the children are birthed at too young an age. Furthermore, in the birthing process, these young women are twice as likely to die, as are their children, compared to mothers in their late twenties and their children. If the mother and her children do survive, the family’s chance of living in poverty is 31% higher than other American families, partially because a mother who entered marriage as a child is also 50% more likely to have dropped out of school and thus have greatly diminished access to well-paying jobs.

Furthermore--if a married child does seek to escape their relationship, they will likely find themselves devoid of both legal rights and protections. In forty-eight states and numerous U.S. territories, exceptions permit marriage before one or both spouses are eighteen, but almost all states require a petitioner to be eighteen years of age or older in order to file for divorce. While a child might legally enter a marriage, they will almost certainly find themselves stranded by the same legal system when seeking to dissolve said marriage. Yes--one may be considered mature enough to become a wife and parent, yet not mature enough to file for divorce. If a child bride feels that she is in immediate danger from her partner, she will not likely be permitted into a women’s domestic abuse shelter, which could be prosecuted for harbouring ‘an underage runaway’ and thus does not accept underage escapees. If an underage girl feels that she is no longer safe living with her husband and seeks more permanent independence, she will find that she is not yet of the “age of majority” required in order to sign a rental lease. Child brides also lack the ability to maintain financial independence--key if they wish to leave their husbands upon reaching the “age of majority”. For every obstacle one will face within a child marriage, there is another if they choose to leave.

The Need to Reform Child Marriage Laws

So, how does the institution which granted these children their glorious burden guarantee them justice when it crushes them? Realistically, it cannot. People without legal rights cannot protect themselves. Children in marriages have no legal rights independent of their union (and, for the most part, within it) and thus are subject to the desires and demands of their spouses and parents. In a free society such as ours, children cannot be allowed to marry. Rapists cannot be allowed to force their victims into marriage. And, as forced marriage survivor and Unchained At Last founder Fraidy Reiss proclaims, parents cannot be allowed to force their children into marriages under the guise of “parental consent” exceptions. If a person possesses no independent legal rights, consent cannot in any way be guaranteed, and consent is imperative. Child marriage permits violence. Child marriage perpetuates poverty. Child marriage pilots young women straight into a pit of destitution. The time is now.

However, child marriage laws in the United States can be difficult to understand and have shown themselves to be even more difficult to change. Of the fifty U.S. states, only two--New Jersey and Delaware--have banned all marriages of people under the age of eighteen. The other forty-eight vary widely. In twenty-five states, including California, Idaho, and Washington, there is no minimum age at which children can be married under exception clauses. In other states, which do impose a minimum age, often even the regulatory laws themselves reflect the gender disparity in child marriage: Massachusetts allows boys to marry as young as fourteen, but allows females to marry as young as twelve. Arkansas is similar. Boys can legally marry at a minimum age of seventeen, while females can legally marry at the age of sixteen. Alongside parental and judicial consent, the most common exception for marriage law is pregnancy or the birth of a child, disproportionately affecting girls who have been raped and/or molested. The fight continues. In accordance with the advocacy of groups like Unchained At Last, many states introduced bills in 2018 and early 2019 to restrict or ban child marriage.


History is on freedom’s side. Not only have the past two years seen more bills seeking to limit or entirely eradicate child marriage enter state legislatures than in the past century altogether, but child marriage as a practice is reaching record lows in the United States. At the time, the 2001 Tennessee child marriages faced no opposition. Today, those marriages would no longer be legal within the state. Overall, legislators are demonstrating a greater concern for the well-beings of these young women and support for the abolition of American child marriage is growing. Progress is washing over the nation in waves, but there are young children who cannot wait another day. We need a flood. The future is at stake. The time is now.   

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