Child Marriage Isn’t Us vs Them – It’s an Us Problem Too

The United States has earned an international reputation for seeking to protect women from the dangers of ongoing wars, repressive regimes, and human rights abuses in various parts of the world. The issue of women’s rights has thus historically been a focal point of American foreign policy. In numerous agendas, the U.S. has included the issue of child marriage under the umbrella of furthering women’s rights worldwide. Defined as “a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18” in both formal and informal unions, child marriage strips young girls of their childhood and leads to long term consequences. As the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already dangerous conditions causing 500,000 more girls to be at risk of being forced into child marriage this year, bringing the total number of child marriages to around 12.5 million in 2020, child marriage remains an unfortunately pervasive issue that significantly harms the safety, health, and agency of women around the world. That is why lawmakers have taken a special interest in combating this form of oppression abroad. However, in doing so, they have turned a blind eye to its prevalence at home and failed to apply the same humanitarian standards within U.S. borders.

Legislation Falls Short – Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2019 passed H.R.2140 the Preventing Child Marriage in Displaced Populations Act” which encourages the President to use the U.S.’s stance in the United Nations to push for legislation protecting girls around the world from child marriage. Although this legislation is extremely important in combatting child marriage, it exemplifies the lack of focus for domestic issues. Except for H.R. 4867 (115th) the Child Marriage Prevention Act — which had zero cosponsors and was essentially dead on arrival — all recent congressional legislation in the last few years regarding child marriage has pertained to developing countries. In fact, the only bill that targeted child marriage at home did so with an international lens in order to further stigmatize immigrants. S.742, the Protecting Children Through Eliminating Visa Loopholes Act, would require that individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa as a fiancée or spouse of a U.S. citizen be above the age of 18. Although the intent is to protect children, this bill uses child marriage to perpetuate stereotypes about immigrants and places the burden of child marriage on the immigration system, not the U.S. legal system as a whole. Legislation in the last two sessions of Congress has therefore defined child marriage as an issue occurring outside of our borders.

These bills demonstrate a conscious recognition of the negative impacts child marriage has on young girls, regardless of their home country. The watershed 2011 bill “International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act” (S.414) was deliberately predicated on the Committee on Foreign Relations’s finding “that child marriage is a violation of…the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its practice undermines U.S. investments in foreign assistance to promote education and skill-building for girls, reduce maternal and child mortality, halt the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and prevent gender-based violence.” This explicit acknowledgement that child marriage not only violates human rights standards, but is extremely detrimental to the health and wellbeing of girls worldwide signals the universal understanding that our laws should not aid in the practice of child marriage. Yet, when it comes to fighting it at a domestic level, claims like “it doesn’t happen here” are frequently evoked. This dichotomy reflects that child marriage has been manipulated as part of the us vs them narrative, focusing on the abuses occurring in underdeveloped or non Western countries but refusing to acknowledge that child marriage does in deed occur in the United States.

Huge Number of Child Marriages – While not as prevalent, or nearly as amplified in the media, child marriage is a prevalent issue in all fifty states. Around 248,000 children as young as 12 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, with at least 31 percent of these children being married to a spouse aged 21 or older. With unregulated data collection, these numbers are likely an underestimate, and the past ten years have statistically shown no major decrease. Young girls are married here for the same reasons they are married abroad: lack of regulation preventing the practice to take place. 46 states legally allow child marriage and 20 states have no required minimum age for marriage. Only four states, New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, have laws in place that prohibit marriage under age 18, with no exceptions. And these four states only recently outlawed child marriage; Delaware and New Jersey in 2018 became the first two states to end child marriage, followed by American Samoa in 2018 and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Pennsylvania and Minnesota in 2020. Despite political awareness of the detriments of child marriage at an international level, it remains legally permissible in the U.S.

The trends of child marriage abroad are similarly reflected at home. Research shows that child and early marriages in the U.S. have the same harmful impacts as those in other countries. Women in the U.S. who marry as teenagers are: often unable to access education and work opportunities, in part because they tend to have more children; 31 percent more likely to live in poverty; three times more likely to have at least five children than are women who married as adults; at a 23 percent greater risk of serious health conditions including heart attack, diabetes, cancer and stroke.; at higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and early pregnancies; three times more likely to have been beaten by their spouses than women who married at 21 or older; and are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than are their unmarried counterparts and four times less likely to complete college. Not only are the brides of early marriage deprived of opportunities and agency, so are their children. Children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die in the first year of life than those born to mothers older than 19. Child marriage therefore poses a serious and grave risk to the livelihoods of not just the spouse, but their future family. As such, there is no evidence that child and early marriage in the U.S. is protective, or that it results in different outcomes than have been shown in other countries. 

Moreover, unlike the common us versus them narrative, child marriage in the U.S. isn’t localized in specific demographics. The aforementioned studies controlled for location, race, and other attributes of the girls who are marrying. Researchers therefore conclude that child marriage is not rooted in specific demographics, but is rather an expression of power and control. 

It’s Really About Power – Child marriage as a manifestation of power is substantiated by looking at the history of the feminist movement in the U.S. While common perception associates early feminism mostly with the suffrage movement, a major facet of its emergence was the fight against child marriage and child rape. In fact, the first bill ever proposed by a female lawmaker in the U.S. was in 1895 to raise the age of consent in Colorado to 21 years old. This movement to protect women from child marriage in the U.S. was inspired by the British success in raising the age of consent to 13 in 1861. With their own concerns about getting STIs from their husbands who went to strip clubs, women viewed raising the age of consent as a way to not only decrease exposure to diseases but as a way to control aspects of their marriage. Similarly, movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, viewed this foundational fight as a way to stop the degradation of women. It is here that the soon to be leaders of the suffrage movement learned how to “apply pressure through the media, enlist legislators’ wives and daughters, build personal relationships with men in office and never underestimate the power of white Southern intransigence.” Just as when feminists took to the streets over a hundred years ago to demand autonomy for themselves from unwanted marriages, child marriage continues to remain dependent on structures of power in an attempt to limit the mobility of young girls.

America is not the exception. Child marriage is not a practice unique to one region, faith, or community. It is instead an issue based on controlling women that permeates across borders, classes, and ideologies. Our foreign policy has categorically demonstrated an intentional and deep recognition of the harms of child marriage, but legislators have simultaneously turned their backs on the young girls at home suffering from the same abuse. Although there is a dire need for more data on the issue, there is concrete evidence of its prevalence and effects at home. It is time for state and national lawmakers to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 in order to protect their own citizens in the same ways they aspire to protect citizens abroad. 

NOW Chapters Can Take Action – NOW’s state and local chapter activists should review their own state’s laws with regard to the minimum age for marriage and take action to protect minors. Look to the laws in New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota and Pennsylvania which prohibit marriage under the age of 18, with no exceptions. Delaware and New Jersey specifically outlawed child marriage in 2018, followed by Minnesota, Pennsylvania, American Samoa and U.S. Virgin Islands. These states and territories would provide good model legislation that NOW activists can take to their legislators. It would be most impactful to have several of the larger population states — like New York, California, Florida and Texas — adopt laws to prohibit child marriage.

Blog by Steph Glascock, NOW Government Relations Intern


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