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Child Marriage in the United States

Learn more about the loopholes which allow marriage under the age of 18 in most U.S. states.

There are too many exceptions to child marriage laws in the United States

Child marriage is harmful. It is a human rights violation that legitimizes abuse and denies girls’ autonomy. When young girls are forced to marry, they are essentially subject to state-sanctioned rape and are at risk of increased domestic violence, forced pregnancy, and negative health consequences, while being denied education and economic opportunity. Equality Now and our partners advocate that the minimum age for marriage be set at 18, no exceptions.

But did you know that only four U.S. states meet this standard and that the federal government provides a child marital exception for statutory rape? Equality Now works around the world to end child, early, and forced marriage, applying our legal expertise in support of partners, individual cases, and legislative efforts. The US should be no exception. 

What is child marriage, and is it really happening in the United States?

Child marriage occurs when one or both of the parties to the marriage are below the age of 18. Child marriage is currently legal in 43 states (only Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have set the minimum age at 18 and eliminated all exceptions), and 20 U.S. states do not require any minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver. Nearly 300,00 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, many much older.

What is the “statutory rape exception”?

Statutory rape is when one of the parties to sexual activity is below the age of consent. It does not have to be forcible, because a minor is not legally able to consent. 18 U.S.C. Section 2243(a), on the Sexual Abuse of a Minor, applies when a person “knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person” who is between the ages of 12 and 16 and is at least four years younger than the perpetrator. 18 U.S.C. Section 2243(c)(2) allows a defense to this crime when “the persons engaging in the sexual act were at that time married to each other.” This means that, at the federal level, child marriage is viewed as a valid defense to statutory rape.

This law not only suggests that the federal government condones the practice of child marriage, it allows an adult to engage in sexual activity with children as young as 12, and gives sexual predators an incentive to force a child to marry them. The law can effectively turn child marriage into a “get out of jail free” card for predators. This law must be repealed. Repealing 18 U.S.C. § 2243(c)(2) is a simple, commonsense step towards aligning U.S. laws with international standards and discouraging child marriage and rape in the U.S.

What can you do about it?

In addition to emailing your members of Congress urging them to sponsor or support a bill to repeal 18 U.S.C. § 2243(c)(2) and to educate their congressional colleagues about the issue of child marriage, you can call them to follow up.

You can also join the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the U.S., and urge your friends and family to take these steps as well.