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Nowhere to Turn: the Challenges of Domestic Abuse in Child Marriage

Domestic abuse in child marriage takes on many forms. From a lack of financial and educational autonomy to social insecurity and intimate partner violence, child marriage exposes children to higher rates of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.

However, it can be difficult for children to escape these abusive relationships. Most domestic violence shelters across the United States turn away anyone under 18 unless they are with a parent or guardian. Youth shelters aren’t a viable option either, though, as these organizations are often obligated to notify parents that their child is there. Protecting children from technically legal marriages also does not always fall under the mandate of Child Protective Services.

Even if shelters or social services could offer help to a child, they run the risk of legal action as a child who leaves “home” under the age of 18 is considered a runaway. Many states have laws against harboring runaways, meaning it is illegal to encourage minors to run away or keep runaways from their parents, legal guardians, or spouses. This threat of legal action drives off many organizations that could provide support for survivors of child marriage.

Branded as runaways, children who flee abusive marriages may also be forcefully returned by police to their spouse or parents. In some states, running away is also considered a status offense, which is an act that is a violation of the law only because of a youth’s status as a minor. These policies only benefit the abuser and put children in greater danger of further domestic violence and mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders.

In many cases, children can also fall victim to an ineffective justice system. Federal and state laws generally dictate that children under 18 cannot initiate legal action in their own name. This lack of legal standing means that children are unable to file for divorce, often leaving them trapped in abusive marriages.

However, the consequences of abuse, or even the abuse itself, may not stop even if a divorce is finalized. Continued abuse comes in the form of long-term psychiatric disorders, custody battles, ostracization from family or community, and much more.

While the outlook appears and sadly is often bleak for children looking to flee abusive marriages, many organizations are attempting to fill in the gaps left by shelters, social services, and the justice system.

Unchained at Last, a New Jersey-based organization founded in 2011 by child marriage survivor Fraidy Reiss, works to help children escape abusive homes and rebuild their lives after the fact. The organization also provides pro bono attorneys, which are typically a child’s only option for representation in divorce proceedings, custody battles, and obtaining restraining orders.

In addition, the recently-founded Naila Amin Foundation stands as the only existing organization that is working to establish refuge centers where children and women fleeing forced or child marriages can feel safe and supported through rehabilitation services.

But these organizations, along with Students Against Child Marriage, realize that protecting children from abusive marriages should start long before the abuse happens. Lobbying legislation that closes the legal loopholes that allow children to be married in 46 states will help keep thousands of children safe and out of abusive marriages in the first place.

To learn more about how you can help close these legal loopholes and join SACM in the fight against child marriage, sign up for our action list. And, if you’re a student interested in helping to enact lifesaving child marriage reforms, consider starting a chapter at your school today! Don’t forget to follow us on social media, and if you are able donate to support our fight.

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