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America’s Patchwork Approach to Regulating Child Marriage

For over two centuries, the federal government has failed in its duty to protect countless victims of American child marriage, leaving the regulation of underage marriage up to each individual state. The resulting patchwork approach to regulating minimum marital ages has left legal loopholes open throughout the country. Since 2000, these archaic laws have allowed over 200,000 vulnerable young girls and boys to be forced into traumatic and legal youth marriages.

There are embarrassingly only four states that have entirely outlawed this despicable practice, and these reforms have only occurred in the last three years. The other 46 states all allow for minors to be married under a host of different statutes. These exceptions are deliberately designed to enable statutory offenders and sexual predators to avoid prosecution. Still, brave advocates have made progress in recent years to increase minimum marital ages and enact more robust protections against abuse.

Loopholes range from a complete lack of age floor (where there’s no limit to how young a child could be wed in states like California, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island), to a deceptive artificial age floor of 17 or 18 that is often disregarded following parental approval, as is the case with New York, South Carolina, and Maryland. The reforms seen in recent years are important, but not fool-proof. 

Child Marriage is a Legal System Built On Deception

Navigating the complicated statutes which regulate underage marriage in the United States isn’t easy, so we’ve broken down the major takeaways:

40 states

allow for any age difference between a child and her spouse

15 states

approve child marriage with the permission of just a single parent or guardian

11 states

enable children of any age to marry

6 states

ignore their minimum marital ages when a girl is pregnant

Only 3 states

require the appointment of an attorney to protect the child’s interests

Only 14 states

require the minor or intended spouse to be a resident of that county or state

Only 28 states

require the approval of a judge in order for a minor to marry

Differs From State to State

Check out the laws yourself on Students Against Child Marriage’s State Statute Database. This spreadsheet is updated frequently to ensure the data is both accurate and up-to-date. The above table was last updated prior to the commencement of 2021 state legislative sessions.

The American child marriage legal system is a mess, and the reforms are just as complex. Different states have taken wildly different approaches to protecting survivors and restricting the lawful marriage of minors, with many failing to take any action at all. Take action to end child marriage by encouraging lawmakers to act, and learn more about the current progress being made in the United States.

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