5 Things You Should Know about Child Marriage and The Law In the United States - Equality Now
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5 Things You Should Know about Child Marriage and The Law In the United States

Child marriage spans across geographies, cultures, religions and socio-economic groups—and poses a major threat to girls in the United States. 

An estimated 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000-2010, 77 percent of whom were girls married to adult men. It’s a shocking number that many are surprised to hear. And many are just, if not more surprised, to hear that child “marriage” is legal in the vast majority of U.S. states.

It’s Legal In the Vast Majority Of States

Only two states, New Jersey and Delaware, have laws in place that prohibit marriage under age 18, with no exceptions. The remaining states have no prohibition against marriage for children under 18, or have bills that limit, but still permit, child “marriage.” 20 states have no required minimum age for marriage, while other states set different minimum legal ages for marriage for girls and for boys. Massachusetts, for example, sets the minimum age of marriage for boys at 14, while the minimum age for girls is 12.

Exceptions Make It Easier For Children To Be Married

The consent of a parent or guardian is among the most common exceptions that allow children under 18 to be married, while judicial approval is often needed for a child under age 16 to be married. Exceptions like these are not as rare as you might think, and have seen children as young as 11 issued a marriage license.

How these exceptions are enforced not only varies depending on the state but, in several states, can also vary depending on a child’s gender, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. In Mississippi, judicial approval is required for boys under age 17, but only for girls under age 15.

Some states have lenient residency requirements, while others have no residency requirement for minors coming from out of state to be married. In one instance, a father from Idaho, where judicial approval is required for children 16 and younger, drove his pregnant 14 year-old daughter to Missouri so she could be married to her 24 year-old rapist. Because at the time Missouri required judicial consent for children 14 and younger and had no residency requirement, the marriage was able to take place.

Federal and State Law Allows For a “Marriage Exception” To Statutory Rape

Statutory rape occurs when one of the parties is below the age of consent. A minor cannot legally give their consent to sexual activity, and so that activity does not have to take place by force in order to be considered rape. Marriage is a valid defense against statutory rape with 12-15 year olds at the federal level, as well as within a majority of U.S. states. These laws vary by state, but all make it legal for an adult to have sex and sexual contact with a child who is below the age of consent in that state if they are married to that child at the time (or, in one state, Indiana, if an adult and a child have ever been married to each other). Several states also have specific exceptions for cases involving pregnancy, enabling a marriage between a pregnant child and her rapist,  providing sexual predators with an incentive to force a child to marry them.

There Is No Minimum Age For Spouses or Fiancés Seeking Immigration Benefits

It’s important to remember that there is no one cultural, ethnic or religious group responsible for the occurrence of child marriage in the U.S. However, U.S. immigration law does not establish a minimum age for spouses or fiancés who file petitions to receive immigration benefits, such as permanent resident or citizenship status. Minors are also not required to provide proof of judicial or parental consent to their marriage, even if these would have been required to marry in the state where a child and her spouse intend to live. These policies can leave children vulnerable to marriages intended to exploit spousal immigration benefits.

88 percent of petitions for spousal visas with a minor listed as the petitioner or recipient of a visa were approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) between 2007 and 2017, and 72 percent of petitions for fiancé immigration benefits with a minor listed as the petitioner or recipient. In 95 percent of cases, the younger spouse or prospective spouse was a girl. Experts have also pointed out that when a child bride is brought to the U.S. she may be denied the opportunity to apply for citizenship and the threat of deportation may prevent her from reporting or leaving an abusive spouse.

Children Can Legally Be Married...But They Can’t Get Divorced

In the U.S., 70-80 percent of all marriages involving a child end in divorce. We also know these marriages face a higher than average rate of domestic violence, among other harmful long term impacts. But a child who is trying to leave a marriage has limited legal options. By definition, legal minors are not able to enter into most contracts. As a result, hiring an attorney and securing a divorce may not be possible for a child.

Minors who are trying to escape a marriage are also faced with limited access to social support services. Girls faced with marriage who leave home may be treated as runaways, and taken into police custody and returned to their families. Domestic violence shelters are not always an option for a minor who is unaccompanied by a parent or guardian and youth shelters cannot typically accommodate a minor for a long-term stay. Some child brides end up in foster care after a divorce, particularly if they came to the U.S. to marry. Friends, teachers, counselors, or other adults who offer her somewhere to stay could be charged with harboring a runaway or contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Child marriage is forcing girls into a situation with dire consequences that there may be too many barriers for them to escape.

Take action to end child marriage in the U.S. and join Equality Now in our work to end child "marriage" around the world and call for the implementation and enforcement of laws that make sure no girl is a bride.

Learn More At The National Coalition To End Child Marriage In the United States.