Child Marriage is in the U.S. and We Are Fighting It State-by-State

Closeup photo of wedding cake bride and groom, turned away from each other

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)— If you are an American, the words “child marriage” probably conjure up a faraway country such as the Ivory Coast.You probably don’t think of it happening in the United States. I certainly didn’t until I read an op-ed by Fraidy Reiss last October in The New York Times. I was shocked and appalled to read it happens right here in my backyard, the New York metropolitan area. The majority of children wed are minor girls.

Nearly all 50 states, including New York, set 18 as the minimum age to wed, but every state permits exceptions to the laws.

Children, defined by United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as those under age 18, may wed with parental consent or with judicial approval. The lines between what one person deems parental consent and another views as coercion, however, are often blurred.

The laws don’t require further inquiry of a child to determine if she or he is being pressured into marriage. Reiss knows of at least one case where a girl sobbed openly at the clerk’s office while her parents signed her marriage license application. The clerk did not question the girl and indeed had no legal authority to intervene.

What American parent wants her or his child married as an adolescent? And what judge approves the marriage of a child to an older adult that otherwise constitutes statutory rape? How is permitting a child under the age of 18 to wed an adult ever in the best interest of the child?

Despite such questions, 3,853 children got married in New York between 2000 and 2010.

Virginia Victory

Is there ever a good reason for a child to wed before 18? I don’t think so and neither does Unchained At Last. Based in Westfield, New Jersey, it is the only nonprofit organization in the country that helps women extricate themselves from forced or arranged marriages and promotes social and legal change on this issue. Unchained At Last is working to change child marriage laws state by state to eliminate the ability for anyone under 18 to marry.

The first legislative victory came in Virginia when Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a lawthat takes effect July 1 that no longer permits children under 18 to marry by parental consent. Instead, only emancipated minors age 16 or 17 may marry.

The law also provides safeguards to ensure minors have appointed counsel and that judges make critical findings before approving the emancipation of a minor who intends to marry.

The Tahirih Justice Center, with offices in Virginia, Maryland and Texas, is a national nonprofit that protects immigrant women and girls fleeing violence and provide legal services and advocacy. It pushed the legislation that just passed in Virginia. The center found that in Virginia, 4,474 children were married between 2004 and 2013, some as young as 13, and 87 percent of them were girls.

Three other states — New York, New Jersey and Maryland — have introduced legislation to end the exceptions to child marriage.

Numerous Dangers

The dangers of child marriage are numerous. Such children are at an increased risk of violence, sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancies. Child marriage lowers the accessibility of education, health and economic opportunities, limiting the individual’s ability to be financially independent.

Those who are in school are more likely to drop out if they are married. Children married before 18 years of age face a very high likelihood of divorce, between 70 percent and 80 percent.

These children can’t legally vote, buy cigarettes, drink alcohol and, in some instances, get a tattoo. But yet some are allowed to enter into the legally, binding contract to marry.

In some states, these same children are not old enough to avail themselves of resources they might need. In abusive marriages they will be too young to either seek the assistance of a domestic violence shelter or retain an attorney to file a divorce action.


If you’re an attorney, contact Unchained At Last to sign up as a pro bono attorney as I did to assist women to break free of forced marriages.

There are numerous opportunities to “UN-Arrange a Marriage . . . RE-Arrange a Life,” whether through education, mentoring, direct client services or even programs such as the Unchained Club, which enables you to start a club at school to educate teachers, students and staff about this issue.