Where is the Outrage for Children legally getting married in the U.S.?

A Troubling Little-Known U.S. Problem 

The first time I learnt that child marriage was a problem in high-income countries, the U.S. and U.K. in particular, I had to look for my jaw for days – it was a spine-chilling moment. While working as an active journalist in Uganda, I extensively covered child marriage. Each time I mentioned any country other than Uganda, it was another African country or somewhere in South Asia. It never occurred to me that it was happening in these ‘more all-powerful’ enlightened countries.

I almost feel embarrassed that I ‘discovered the existence of this heinous vice in about the last six years in the so-called developed world. Did I judge? I felt like most international organisations helping us end this iniquity in African countries are not doing enough to end it in their own countries. I judge because sadly, ‘out there’, we still look up to countries like the U.K. and the U.S. And rightly so because, in my research, I discovered that Bangladesh with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, in 2014 wanted to lower the age of marriage from 18 to 16 and one of the reasons was  because the U.K. permits child marriage too. 

A Legal Hidden Crisis

The report titled United States’ Child Marriage Problem by Unchained at Last, which combats forced and child marriage in the US, reveals some shocking and poorly known facts.

About 300,000 children (yes children) with a few as young as 10 were married in the US between 2000 and 2018.

Not surprisingly, most are girls (86%) married to adult men – the same story goes for my continent and in some Asian countries – clearly an injustice rooted in gender inequality and patriarchy. What makes this crisis worse in the U.S is that these marriages are lawful.

Yes, that is another shocker I got from learning about child marriage ‘out here’. The gross practice is still legal in 46 states, and it’s only in recent years (2018) that the remaining four states – Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania – banned the practice with no exceptions. I should feel guilty for feeling relieved that in Uganda and most countries I was used to quoting in my stories, it is unlawful despite its persistence and laws not getting implemented.

In North Carolina, where I reside, the state ranks at number 15 per capita for child marriage, with the youngest age allowed to wed at 14. Infuriating! Time to go back to the basics and answer, “who is a child?” UNICEF defines a child as anyone under 18 years of age. Ironically, while children in the US can get married, they are not yet entitled to file for divorce or seek shelter in case of domestic violence.

It is RAPE – condoned by the states

Unchained’s report points out that child marriage often covers up child rape and serves as a “get out of jail free” card for a would-be rapist under state law. Shockingly, in most states, the legal framework that would normally consider sex with an underage person statutory rape does not apply within marriage. In the remaining states, while sex with an underage person is illegal in all cases, marrying one is nevertheless permitted and there is no control or enforcement in place once the documents are signed.

Equally appalling is the federal criminal code which prohibits sex with a child aged 12 to 15, but exempts those who first marry the child.

Unchained’s report rightly notes that “this incentivizes child marriage and implicitly endorses child rape.”

Ruined Childhood

Young girls usually have no agency when it comes to contraceptive use and their bodies are not ready to give birth – pregnancy and childbirth complications are very common among childbrides and are sadly still the leading cause of death among 15-19 year old girls worldwide. According to Girls Not Brides, girls before the age of 18 are also more likely to acquire HIV, and experience domestic violence.

World Bank Infographic: Putting a Price Tag on Child Marriage

Protecting Girls, Improving the World

  • To attain the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, the world, developed and developing, will need to end child marriage as well as early and forced marriage. Much more needs to be done to accelerate progress, starting with fully outlawing these human rights violations everywhere, especially in wealthy nations like the US who have no excuse for inaction.
  • As well as protecting girls’ lives, another advantage would be a reduction in the population growth rate currently contributing a lot to biodiversity loss, climate change, and poverty.

Child marriage contributes significantly to higher total fertility as women who marry earlier start bearing children earlier, resulting in larger family sizes.

  • Eliminating child marriage would also enable girls to stay in school longer and as a result have more agency over their bodies and lives, helping them to reach their full potential.  This would, however, all come to fruition if girls were to stay longer in school, have access to modern contraception and gainful employment.

Where’s the International Outrage?

The US and other countries (including the UK) that legalise this vile act need to step up and rethink a child’s rights. Ironically, in three states, Alabama, Mississippi, and Alaska, adulthood officially starts at 19, 21, and 19 years, respectively, yet all condone under-18-year-olds to be married. We need the same international outcry over child marriage in countries like Bangladesh and Niger to happen in the US where a need for legislative intervention is urgent and lack of action is deeply shameful. Personally, I would like to see the age at marriage raised to 25 when scientifically, any human’s brain is fully functional.

PS: Added opinion here mine but story without opinion first appeared at https://populationmatters.org/news/2021/04/child-marriage-us-where-outrage

Also, do join the #EndChildMarriageUSA virtual protest – via Zonta USA.

Unchained At Last is staging a virtual protest. To join, take a photo of yourself holding a piece of paper that says, “#EndChildMarriageUSA” over your mouth and share it on social media. A sample caption is below.
Nearly 300,000 children were legally married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2018. @ZontaUSA, @UNICEFUSA & @UnchainedAtLast are working to #EndChildMarriageUSA. Join the virtual protest and take action today to #StopChildMarriages: https://bit.ly/2R7MaA3.

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