Domestic Affairs

America’s Silent Epidemic

As much as we talk about America’s shortfalls when it comes to gender equality, the general consensus seems to be that women have it better here than in most of the world. In most ways, that’s true. In the eyes of the law, women in America are equal to men, and although that’s not always reflected in everyday life, the notion of parity between genders certainly isn’t a radical one. But as much as we like to take pride in our increasingly feminist culture, we tend to overlook the seemingly innocuous policies that have effects reminiscent of third world countries. As far as that ignorance goes, its consequences are put front and center in the fight to end America’s child marriage problem.

There is a silent epidemic of child marriage in the United States, one that is occurring in astonishingly epic proportions. You don’t really hear people talk about it, either because they don’t know about it or they simply don’t care. But between 2000 and 2015, it was estimated that at least 207,459 minors were married in the U.S., excluding data from nine states. The vast majority of these minors were girls, some as young as 12 and 13 years old, and when looking at marriages that took place between 2000 and 2010, 77 percent of those girls were married to adult men. In any other circumstances, those relationships would be considered statutory rape and met with serious prison time. But in many U.S. states, statutory rape laws have loopholes that allow perpetrators to avoid prosecution if they’re married to their victim.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact is that these marriages aren’t just ceremonial or done in secret. They are completely legal. In the majority of U.S. states, the minimum age at which a person can get married is 18, but only New Jersey and Delaware make that an absolute threshold. In the other 48 states, exceptions like parental consent and judicial approval allow for minors at such a young age like 12 or 13 to get married. In 18 states, legal loopholes mean that there is no minimum age at which a child can get married.

At first glance, the laws themselves don’t seem like much of a problem. After all, if a 16 or 17-year-old child’s parents don’t mind if their child gets married, then why is it a big deal? You might even personally know a couple who got married as teenagers and stayed together for decades in a story straight out of a romantic comedy. But these loopholes are a breeding ground for abuse and exploitation. If a 12-year-old girl’s parents consent to her marrying a 30-year-old man, she probably wasn’t involved in that decision, and even in the unlikely scenario that she was, she is still a child. Whatever reasons the parents may have for doing it, be it financial or religious, the child is ultimately the one who has to suffer. Globally, girls who marry before the age of 15 are 50 percent more likely to face physical or sexual violence from a partner. As far as their education goes, young girls who are married are often expected to drop out of school, and resuming their education at any point will prove itself to be difficult.

This sounds like the sort of problem that should have people fuming. Regardless of where your personal political preferences may lean, pre-teen girls getting married to people who would be called pedophiles in any other situation should be disturbing. But as obvious as the response to this issue might seem, advocates for change have faced an uphill battle to close the loopholes and make 18 the absolute minimum age to get married, with pushback coming from all sides of the political spectrum.

While serving as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie vetoed a bill to raise the marriage age, saying that it violated religious freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union also voiced opposition against a similar bill in California, arguing that it would intrude on the fundamental right to marriage and could be ineffective in stopping coercive relationships. In general, some religious conservatives argue that if teenage girls get pregnant and don’t get married, they’re more likely to consider abortion as an option. Other groups say that banning the use of parental consent is a step too far in limiting the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

Perhaps it’s understandable to fear the potential repercussions of these bills. But the consequences of a state raising the marrying age pale in comparison to those faced by minors coerced into marriages for whatever reason. Once these marriages are planned and performed, there are few avenues of escape for a minor. Even though most states allow minors to get married, the minors in these situations can’t file for divorce because of their age. If the minor tries to run away, their age might make it impossible for a shelter to take them in. And young women who become pregnant as a result of rape might be pressured to enter a lifelong commitment to the perpetrator, binding them to repeated abuse.

Of course, there are marriages that occur between two consenting individuals who happen to be under the age of 18, and those are in no way the same as an adult man marrying a girl who has hardly hit puberty. But in those situations, having to wait to get married is at the most a temporary inconvenience, and the human costs of maintaining the laws that allow underage marriage far outweigh the benefits.

Until the laws regarding child marriage are changed, activists are working tirelessly to help minors escape abusive marriages. Organizations like Unchained at Last and Girls Not Brides, which provide resources for individuals to take place in advocacy, are actively pushing legislation across the country to raise the minimum marrying age to 18, and are persistent in sharing the stories of young women who have been forced into underage marriages. Along with total victories in New Jersey and Delaware, they have found success with states taking smaller steps to reduce the impact of this epidemic. One such victory came in 2017 when Texas, a state with one of the highest child-marriage rates in the country, raised its minimum age of marriage to 16 and requires anyone under the age of 18 to receive the consent of a judge before marrying.

The end to this problem is nowhere in the near future, but what was once a silent epidemic has now become a rallying cry for people across the country who refuse to let children be victimized. If nothing else, that’s a step forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s