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How State Laws Perpetuate American Child Marriage

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Abusive child marriages are happening right here in your backyard. Read as we break down this complex legal system for you to understand!

Though child marriage tends to be seen as an issue only in other countries, the United States has a prominent child marriage problem. Between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 minors were married, some as young as 12-years-old, and the vast majority married to adults. And based on data collected by Students Against Child Marriage, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates over 75,000 boys and girls aged 15 to 17 were trapped in child marriages as of 2018, alone.

Child marriage impacts almost every aspect of a survivor’s life, from jeopardizing their education to putting their health and safety at risk. Because minors do not have the same rights as adults, it is challenging for survivors to seek help in cases of abuse.

Despite all of underage marriage’s ramifications, only four states have banned child marriage without exception. All other states have laws with exceptions that allow for children to get married.

First and foremost, 11 states do not have an age floor. This means that there is no legal limit to how young a child can be to get married in that state. Six states have a low age floor, meaning there is a minimum age to obtain a marriage license, but that age is under 16-years-old.

Even when states have age floors, other loopholes make it easy to get married. Some states don’t always require proof of age when obtaining a marriage license, and there is often nothing that prohibits marriage licenses from being given to out-of-state minors. This allows children to go around their state’s laws and marry elsewhere.

In many states, court approval is necessary to obtain a marriage license for children. While this is an important start, there are still several ways this fails to protect children. Sometimes, a clerk is the one who approves the underage marriage licenses, not a judge. This takes away the formality of the proceedings intended to protect the child, and, in turn, limits the investigation into the situation to prevent force, coercion or other harm to the child.

Further, if a judge is needed, that judge is often not required to specialize in juvenile, family or domestic issues. A lot of the time, judges are not given guidance on how to make a decision. This means considerations like the age difference, criminal records, the child’s maturity, or the child’s best interest are not always taken into account.

Despite the requirement of court approval, state laws continue to leave children vulnerable through exceptions, such as parental consent or pregnancy.

Forty-three states allow the legal age to marry to be lower than 18 if there is parental consent, alone or combined with judicial approval. Of those states, 26 require only one parent to give consent. Additionally, six states have pregnancy exceptions that can lower the legal age of marriage if the child is pregnant or has given birth. For more information on the specific legal status of child marriage in your state, visit our State Statute Database.

While some may consider parental consent or pregnancy enough to approve an underage marriage, these exceptions fail to take into consideration something significant: full and free consent or, more importantly, the frequent lack thereof. These exceptions don’t take into account coercion, pressure, or force from a child’s parent(s), community, or partner. This repeatedly results in abusive, forced marriages being approved under the pretenses of a necessary or legal child marriage.

Simply put: the United States is failing to protect children from harm and abuse. State laws do not do enough to protect children from underage marriage and there are no federal laws against child marriage. We must do better.

Fortunately, you can take action now! Join our action list to learn more about how you can help change the laws and prevent child marriage. And if you’re a student looking to become more involved in this fight to save lives, start a chapter at your school today!

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