CW: Mentions of rape, child abuse, and suicide.
Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 were legally married. The study also catalogued the current legal status of child marriage across the country, with the practice remaining legal in 46 states.
If this information wasn’t shocking enough, the laws which enable child marriage often contradict statutory rape laws, ultimately permitting child rape. As a result, up to 60,000 of the child marriages since 2000 occurred at an age that otherwise meets the definition of a sex crime under the state’s law. With 88% of those cases occurring under the jurisdiction of state laws which granted marriage exceptions, child rape and sexual violence against children was essentially given legal protection from the state.
Child Marriage is Overwhelmingly Legal Throughout the United States
Currently, only four states have ended marriage before age 18; Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. These laws were only enacted over the last three years. Another twelve states currently have pending child marriage laws that have all been stalled. This stagnation has left child marriage completely legal in 46 states.
Most of these states only require parental consent for a child marriage, with others requiring just a judge’s stamp of approval. These cases happen all over the country, and generally don’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, or geographic origin. One victim, Patricia Abatemarco was “raised in an upper-middle-class, suburban home in Minnesota.” Patricia was married off to her sexual abuser after becoming pregnant at 14.
Federal Law Offers Little Protection Against Child Marriage
Though sex with children aged 12-15 is currently prohibited under the federal criminal code, their are exceptions in cases when the child was married first.
There is no minimum age under federal law in which to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé. Absurdly, the parents of a kindergartner could put forth a successful petition for their 80-year-old spouse to receive a visa. This loophole provides a legal mechanism for child trafficking. According to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, the U.S. approved 8,868 spousal or fiancé visas to minors between 2007 and 2017. In 95% of these cases the younger party was a girl.
These Marriages Often Leave Children With No Way Out
Many children try to leave their forced marriages but simply cannot escape. Most are not legally able to file for divorce on their own, and many attorneys turn away these cases because retainer agreements with minors are voidable. Domestic violence shelters often turn away unaccompanied minors. Every year, countless child brides contemplate or attempt what seems to be their only way out: suicide.
Even for those lucky enough to flee their marriages, child marriage survivors then face poverty, PTSD, and a plethora of other health complications.
Only YOU Can End Child Marriage
46 states still legally allow child marriage and rape to happen. Have you spoken to your lawmakers? Have you spread the word? Students Against Child Marriage, the nation’s only student-led nonprofit fighting this abuse, makes it easy to have an impact. Click here to instantly email your lawmakers today!