Child marriage isn’t often the first thing on most American’s minds. When it does garner attention, however, it’s frequently misunderstood. Simply put: child marriage in the United States is a modern human rights crisis and should be treated as such.
But, to this day, it’s not treated as a human rights issue at all. This is because of the way Americans tend to think and talk about injustice. As a whole, the United States treats human rights differently than many other countries. On an international scale, in fact, the United States is not always a signatory of human rights conventions. For example, the United States is one of only three countries that have not ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC).This is based on the individualistic ideas present in the founding of the United States and the culture that continues today.
In the United States, the focus of human rights tends to be what is known as negative rights: protections that stop governments from taking away other rights like the freedom of speech or freedom from torture.
On the other hand, positive rights are the responsibility of governments to provide certain resources to the people, like education and healthcare. These rights are recognized by the international community but are not necessarily considered human rights by all Americans, or even the government. In the case of healthcare, the United States avoided naming health as a human right in a report to the UN because the current system does not fully support the realization of this right.
Proponents of social justice reform believe that the lack of positive rights (education, healthcare, etc.) leads to greater inequality in the United States. However, their opponents believe that the government is not responsible for providing these rights to the citizens of that country. In this case, violence against women, racial discrimination, and economic inequality are seen as unfortunate, yet inevitable consequences of our society when they should be seen as a threat to the dignity and wellbeing of people.
Since the 1950s, the United Nations has put together resolutions and covenants defining human rights. It started with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which covers a number of rights, including that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Now, the UN has progressed to state that child marriage is a form of forced marriage because the parties under 18 cannot give full, free, and informed consent. This makes child marriage a human rights violation in the eyes of the UN.
A few states in the U.S. have laws criminalizing forced marriage. However, some of the same states that criminalize forced marriage still have exceptions that allow child marriage. This is because child marriage is not always considered a forced marriage in the U.S. Still, a number of steps need to be taken to ensure that full, free, and informed consent is given by minors who get married. Right now, the system does not account for force or coercion in child marriage.
Too often, child marriage is seen as one of those unfortunate circumstances that happen to people instead of a consequence of a broken system. Child marriage is also seen as a solution to other unfortunate situations such as teen pregnancy or poverty. In reality, it perpetuates cycles of violence and poverty and jeopardizes children’s education and health.
The individualism of the United States prevents its realization of human rights. It puts the responsibility of injustice on victims and survivors instead of on the systems that perpetuate the injustices. We need to do a better job of caring for one another. It is up to all of us to end violations of human rights in the United States.
This is why the work of Students Against Child Marriage is so important. Students from across the country are stepping up to take care of those forgotten and dismissed. We are standing up for those whose rights are being stripped away by outdated legislation. But we need your help. Join us in our fight against this human rights abuse and get involved now!