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The Scandal Of Child Marriages In the United States

Updated on July 17, 2017

Forced Marriage

In the United Kingdom we are familiar with stories of young girls being sent to Pakistan or India on the pretext of visiting their grandparents and then being married off to a distant relative who is usually some years older than themselves. There are also cases of forced marriages of minors taking place in this country, within certain immigrant communities. The girls in question find themselves living lives of domestic slavery and if they are below the age of 16 - as many of them are – the victims of regularly repeated statutory rape.

Shocking as these cases are, their illegality is beyond question - at least as far as those marriages that take place within the United Kingdom. However, there is a western country where such events are common and are entirely legal. That country is the United States of America.

A Disturbing Survey

The charity Unchained At Last carried out a survey across all 50 states and found – in the 38 states for which information was available – that over a ten year period (2000 to 2010) 167,000 licences were issued for the marriage of people who were aged under 18, which is the official minimum age for marriage in almost all 50 states. However, exceptions are granted on application to a judge, and in 25 states there is no age below which the exception applies. It is known that children as young as 10 have been married under these arrangements, and licences issued in cases where a consummated marriage would constitute statutory rape due to the age difference between the partners.

For a marriage to be legal, all that is needed is for permission to be granted by one parent. As a minor, the child’s views are not deemed valid in court.

A Widespread Problem

The survey revealed that child marriages take place in the United States within families that belong to all major religions and several minor ones, as well as those who declare no religious affiliation. The socio-economic background is immaterial, as is whether the people involved are recent immigrants or belong to communities that have been resident in the country for many generations.

Cases that have come to light include that of Sherrie in Florida, who was repeatedly raped by members of her church congregation and became pregnant at the age of ten. Her parents insisted that she marry the father, who was 20 years old, and this was agreed by a local judge who saw this as a means of avoiding prosecuting the man for rape.

Other cases have come to light when supposedly Christian sects have been unveiled that practiced polygamy, often involving underage girls. Examples include the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Arizona and the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Successful prosecutions have been made in such cases, but the offence has been polygamy as opposed to the young age of the girls involved.

Lack of Legal Redress

If a girl wishes to escape from what is often a forced marriage, to someone she does not know and may only have met for the first time on the day of the ceremony, she has very few options and virtually no legal protection. The fact that she is under 18, and therefore denied the legal rights of an adult, means that she cannot bring a case before a court because any contract involving a child is voidable – except, of course, for the original marriage contract.

If a girl runs away from her marital home and goes to a domestic violence shelter she will be turned away, because such places only cater for adult victims. The police will pursue runaways and return them to their husbands if they are caught. Anyone found to have assisted a runaway could find themselves in court because they have committed a criminal offence.

Taking Action

Apart from organisations such as Unchained at Last, some people in the United States have taken steps to put this situation to rights. In New Jersey a bill was introduced in the state legislature in 2016 that would have banned all marriages and civil unions to any person younger than 18. This had widespread support and the measure was passed in the final vote by 115 votes to five. However, it was vetoed in May 2017 by the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, on the grounds that it was discriminatory against certain religious groups, although he did not state which ones he had in mind.

Some groups have sought to defend child marriage because it provides a route by which a child conceived by an underage girl can avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. In reply to this one might say that there is a legal option already available – it’s called adoption.

There is, however, better news from other states – such as New York, Maryland and Virginia – where legislation to curtail child marriage looks to have a good chance of success.

More Must Be Done

There is clearly a need to deal with this issue in a sensitive manner and to be aware that one size may not fit all when it comes to legislating for cultural practices that are offensive to some communities but not others. The proposed New Jersey law, for example, would have gone further than what is allowed in the UK, where marriage is legal from the age of 16 – for both sexes – as long as parental permission has been given. Even this stipulation does not apply in Scotland, hence the past popularity of young couples eloping to Gretna Green, which is just over the border from England. However, there is surely a world of difference between couples who want to marry against their parents’ wishes and the cases of forced marriage that are under discussion in terms of the American situation.

If nothing is done, states in the US are, in effect, sanctioning paeodophilia by allowing children as young as ten to be the official sexual partners of older men and forced to bring up the children of their husbands while having their own childhood cruelly curtailed.

Lines have to be drawn. In the United States it would appear that this process is at an unacceptably early stage. Child marriage is certainly not a problem that applies only in America. But where else in the western world is it tolerated so widely and supported by the legal framework? Change is long overdue.

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    • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      Jason, thank you for your comment. Yes, UK law does what it can to protect young people from abuse of many kinds, and these laws are enforced if at all possible. When any case of abuse is reported it can lead to immediate action, such as a child being taken into care, and/or questions being raised in Parliament.

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      8 months ago from United States of America

      John Welford? Yeah, I know that the United Kingdom has had a longstanding law that prohibits marriage before the age of 16 under any circumstances. If I'm not mistaken, it has been in effect for a century there in your nation, and any attempts to circumvent it have been frowned upon there since its inception. My maternal great-grandfather emigrated from Oldham, England to the United States of America sometime in the early part of the 20th century. He married and started a family here. One of his daughters asked him and her mother if she could get married at the age of fifteen to a man in his mid-twenties. My maternal great-grandmother had no problem with it. My mother claims that my great-grandfather was agreeable with her request as well. In any event, I realize that my great-grandfather and his wife would not have been able to provide legal consent for their daughter to marry at 15 years old if they had been living in England. However, I have heard that your nation has safeguards in place to prevent law-enforcement officials from abusing their power and authority in situations such as the one that Theophanes Avery described in his comment. In my nation, police officials are notorious for overstepping their boundaries. Therefore, I honestly don't believe that my nation is ready for a law in every state that would ban all marriages below the age of 18.

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      8 months ago from United States of America

      Theophanes Avery? I know that there is a movement here in our country (the United States of America) to outlaw any form of marriage before the age of 18 years old in every state. Interestingly enough, there are people saying that these new laws that have passed in some states banning any marriage before 18 will get struck down in the United States Supreme Court. I don't know if this situation throughout our country will play out this way ultimately, but I believe that the United States Supreme Court's eventual involvement will make our Supreme Court justices aware of many problems that our criminal laws have in our nation pertaining to juvenile justice. I find it somewhat of a double standard in the law that in New York state, a minor is automatically tried as an adult at the age of 16 years old for any crime he or she commits, but, on the other hand, a minor cannot marry until 17 years of age in that state under any circumstances. Although I don't ever encourage anyone to marry before the age of 18 or even before 30 for that matter, I still find it so outrageous that many law-enforcement officials in our nation are looking to have their cake and eat it too while they disregard the public interests.

    • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      I would say that there is a often a fine line between persuasion and force. There is also the question of what the law will allow - in the UK there are no circumstances that would allow anyone to marry if younger than 16, and that is not the case in the whole of the US.

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes Avery 

      8 months ago from New England

      Forced marriage may not be the best term. That makes it sound arranged by adults without the girl's say, what's far more common is a girl gets pregnant by an older "boyfriend" and in order to provide the best future for her and her child she marries the father with the permission and often insistence of her parents. This is a problem that frequently is seen where religion, poverty, and lack of an education intersect. Usually the parents signing off their daughters think they are doing what's best for her. I'm not in favor of marriage for anyone under 18 but I feel like your article could use an American perspective...

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      2 years ago from United States of America

      John? By the way, here is the link to that online article titled "The Great American Controversy Over Underage Marriage," if you wish to pull it up on your computer screen: https://steemit.com/news/@epicenterdefacto/the-gre...

    • TheShadowSpecter profile image

      Jason B Truth 

      2 years ago from United States of America

      But you know something, John? One thing that really baffles me about this subject is that there are people who actually believe that when a girl gets married at 14 or 15 years old to a young man in his twenties, she is likely to become a teenage welfare mom. However, when I worked for a welfare agency, this is what I encountered. I found that the teenage girls in Loretta-Lynn-style marriages were the ones who were able to steer clear of public assistance. It was the ones whose same-age boyfriends impregnated them and then bailed on them that ended up on welfare. I never encourage anyone to get married before they're 18 years old, and I don't deny the fact that our society frowns upon adult men over 21 years of age marrying teenage girls who are not yet legally old enough to vote. However, shouldn't state legislators here in the United States of America be seeking to pass laws to go after deadbeat teenage fathers instead of outlawing teenage minors from getting married at all? When I worked at a social services agency, my biggest concern was that too many adolescent boys were getting girls pregnant before these girls were even old enough to drive and then bailing on them. Then these boys would do the same thing to some other girl. This gets me furious. I came across an online article that plays the devil's advocate on this issue. It is titled "The Great American Controversy Over Underage Marriage." You might want to take a look at it, because it does touch upon a lot of areas that many people have overlooked on this issue. It even addresses your concerns about "state-sanctioned pedophilia," so to speak.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      2 years ago from Tennessee

      I have not been personally aware of any forced underage marriages in this country, though I am sure your research is correct. It is definitely not the norm and uncommon in the general society. My grandmother was married at age 15 and that was not uncommon in her era. Even when I was in high school (I'm in my 70's) several of my classmates married before they graduated high school. This is much less common now but it is still legal if at least one parent signs. None of these marriages were forced and most of them endured through the years.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      This topic is extremely sensitive and sad. At the heart of this dehumanization of females is a warped sense of justice. How can the girl who becomes a wife be too young to make an input into that decision? Makes me feel so helpless! Thanks for making us at least, remember these unfortunate girls.

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