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Myth Versus Fact: Child Marriage in the U.S.

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

A critical first step in the fight against child marriage is raising public awareness. However, it is not just a lack of knowledge that perpetuates this dangerous practice, but also the misconceptions and biased understandings of child marriage that many Americans hold. These misconceptions prevent legislative progress and prolong a dangerous status quo. Read on as we debunk some of the common myths surrounding child marriage in the U.S.

MYTH: Child marriage only happens in “third-world” countries.

FACT: While a Google image search of “child marriage” might bring up images of child brides from India or African countries, child marriage is a global issue and isn’t unique to any one country or religion in particular. This dangerous practice is even happening right here in the United States.

MYTH: Child marriage isn’t legal in the United States.

FACT: People in the U.S. are often quick to criticize child marriage in other countries, but don’t realize that it is happening in their own backyards. Child marriage is still legal in 46 states. Only Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Minnesota have banned child marriage; but these reforms have only come within the last three years. There is no federal law on child marriage, giving the U.S. a patchwork of weak and ineffectual child marriage laws that allow far too many children to be married in this country.

MYTH: Well if it is legal, it’s not that prevalent here.

FACT: One child married is one child too many. But in the U.S., there are currently at least 75,344 minors aged 15-17 trapped in child marriages, a truly shameful statistic.

As of 2018, over 21,974 additional 15- to 17- years olds were victims of child marriage. However, many limitations exist in collecting accurate data on child marriage because data may not include those who are separated, divorced, or widowed. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which is considered the gold standard for this type of research, also does not survey individuals under fifteen. The survey is self-reported, so this data does not account for individuals who conceal their child marriage.

This is why the Students Against Child Marriage research team is working with state agencies from across the country to obtain exact counts from marriage license data and measure the ture scale of this abusive practice.

MYTH: Child marriage is a religious problem.

FACT: Many religions do contain longstanding customs and traditions that are often invoked to provide moral justification for child marriage. However, no religion actually promotes child marriage, and often the pressure to marry comes from within the child’s community or family. Many societal and cultural norms besides religion also impact the prevalence of child marriage. Blaming it entirely on religion misses the bigger picture and can also slow down life-saving child marriage legislation.

MYTH: A child who marries can just leave the marriage anytime they want to.

FACT: Social systems are not set up to support survivors of child marriage. Most domestic violence shelters or women’s shelters turn away anyone under 18 unless they are with a parent or guardian. Youth shelters are often obligated to inform the child’s parents that their child is there. Children who “leave home” can also be considered runaways and forcibly returned to their parents or spouse. Children who marry may also fall victim to an ineffective justice system as they are typically unable to initiate legal action in their own name.

MYTH: This issue doesn’t affect me, so I don’t have to care about it.

FACT: Child marriage creates a dangerous cycle of violence, poverty, inequality, and poor mental and physical health - a cycle that transcends generations. The experiences of children who marry are too often ignored, forgotten, or dismissed. With at least 75,344 minors trapped in child marriages across the country, we can’t afford to not care. Child marriage also impacts entire communities, not just the individual. From perpetuating cycles of low educational attainment and poverty to increasing the need for medical care, child marriage hurts communities, cities, states, and even the entire country.

MYTH: There’s nothing I can do about child marriage in the U.S.

FACT: Change is possible and organizations such as SACM are working to make that change happen. And you can help. Join SACM in the fight against child marriage by signing up for our action list, following along with our blog, and, if you’re a student interested in advocacy on a local level, consider starting a chapter at your school today. Together, we can make impactful changes in our communities and beyond, and in doing so, help save thousands of children across the country.

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