The issue of child marriage is widely discussed in the context of far away countries, where discrimination against women is the norm and access to education is limited. Unsurprisingly, this issue disproportionately affects young girls. A staggering 15 million girls worldwide are married before the age of 18, and not just in developing countries. In fact, a concerning fraction of these underage marriages occur in the developed world. Most people would be shocked to learn that between 2001 and 2010, nearly 4,000 teenagers under the age of 18 married legally in New York State. New York is not the only state that has struggled with this issue, but it happens to be a standout in the unspoken problem of child marriage in the United States.
Legal consent to marry is determined on several levels across the United States. Nationwide, anyone can legally consent to marry once they reach the age of 18. However, states have the ability to allow marriages when one (or both) of the partners is a minor if certain conditions are met. Usually, these ‘conditions’ are limited to parental consent. However, in most states, and in the case of New York State, parental consent only covers marriages of minors of 16 years of age or older. For anyone younger than 16, judicial consent is necessary. Although these sound like reasonable and serious precautions, it should be noted that both parental and judicial consent are relatively easy to work around in most states. In cases where parental consent is required, few states have laws requiring the investigation of a minor’s willingness to marry when their parent or legal guardian has signed off on it. This means that in cases where a parent coerced or forced their child into an unwanted marriage, the legal system has no mechanism in place to thoroughly evaluate such cases. Cases of parents forcing their children into marriages has been observed in American families of a wide range of religious backgrounds, from Catholic to Hindu to Mormon. Reasons for such forced marriages vary from economic motivations to controlling a child’s sexuality – strikingly similar to the reasons behind forced marriages around the world.
New Jersey, another state with loopholes in their marriage laws, has seen 3,461 marriages involving minors between 1995 and 2012. Although most of the minors in these marriages were 16 or older, this statistic remains deeply troubling. The problem is further complicated by the fact that 91% of these marriages occurred between a child and an adult, often in the category where statutory rape charges would be applicable in the absence of the marriage license. Furthermore, 90% of the minors involved in these marriages are girls, unsurprisingly. Some such marriages have received a startling reaction in the media. For example, the 2011 marriage between 16-year-old Courtney Stodden and 51-year-old Doug Hutchison was the subject of much scrutiny – and much twisted fascination – in the public eye. There is a strange phenomenon in the media, and particularly in the American media, of a sort of sick satisfaction that comes from watching others behave ridiculously and make poor decisions in the public eye. This trend is clearly visible everywhere you look, from tabloids, to viral videos, to the ever-popular reality TV shows on every network. Whatever humor, shock, or self-gratification that comes from others’ absurd and foolish behavior certainly cannot be worth the damage caused by underage marriages both here and around the world. Why is it a strange, but laughable news story when a teenage American girl marries a middle-aged man, but a tragedy when a teenage girl in Malawi or Bangladesh ends up in a similar situation? Americans, and many others in the developed world, take comfort in distancing themselves from the parts of the world they perceive as ‘corrupt,’ ‘dangerous,’ or ‘unjust,’ but they fail to see the injustice in their own backyards. It is crucial to be aware of human rights abuses worldwide and work hard to combat oppression in all its forms, whether these abuses occur around the corner or halfway around the globe.
The negative effects of child marriage have been studied widely, and the overwhelming consensus is that child marriage damages a young girl’s mental and physical health, education and career prospects, and socioeconomic well being. These negative effects are not exclusive to poorer countries. No matter where they live, girls who marry young are more likely to drop out of school, have more children earlier (sometimes putting their own health in jeopardy), fall into poverty, and develop mental health issues. All of these things are connected. Education for many is the path out of poverty, and economic stability can lessen the burden of health problems in turn. When these basic necessities are threatened when a girl gets married at a young age, her whole future is in peril. Young girls can fall into vulnerable situations in any country, but in democratic countries, people have the unique ability to have a greater say in the future prospects of their girls.
In the state of New York, lawmakers have introduced a bill to combat the issue of child marriage and monitor loopholes in marriage consent laws. The bill has been supported heavily by the group Unchained at Last, an activist group dedicated to eradicating child marriage in the United States and around the world. Recently, Unchained at Last protested child marriage law loopholes at the New York State Capital. The Human Rights Watch has also taken part in advocating for the passage of this bill. You can show your support by adding your name to the Human Rights Watch’s scripted email to state legislators in New York demonstrating support for the bill. If you live in the US and your state lacks adequate laws to protect girls from child marriage, call your legislators and demand change. Democracy works when people make their voices heard. When young girls succeed, we all succeed, and preventing child marriage is a crucial step in securing this success. And of course, it is essential to advocate for the rights of girls wherever possible, whether they pertain to health, education, economic stability, sexual violence, or marriage laws.