In the United States, religion plays an important role in preserving the practice of child marriage. Despite common misconceptions that child marriage is only an issue that occurs among those who practice Islam, the practice is pervasive across all religions.
“I hope that when people read about child marriage, they will stop thinking it happens in other countries, in other religions,” said child marriage survivor and founder of In Search of Glitter, Michelle Anderson. “It happened to me, an All-American Christian girl, in middle America.”
While no major religion specifically promotes child marriage, many contain longstanding customs and traditions that are often invoked to provide moral justification for it. This often manifests not only through the religious institution itself, but also through parental and community pressure.
“In some cases, we’ve seen families use religious guilt-tripping to pressure a girl to marry- for example, threats that G-d will condemn them or that the congregation or community will shun them if they do not marry,” explains Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center
That fear of community or familial ostracization can often force children to make the impossible choice between losing their family, friends, and community or child marriage. Some religious sects also encourage child marriage to deter sexual relations outside of marriage. In the case of early pregnancy, child marriage can also sometimes be portrayed as a way to avoid shame and uphold a family’s reputation within their community.
Six states currently ignore their minimum age laws when a girl is pregnant. Survivor Michelle was 16 when she became pregnant. Her family and religious community forced her into a dangerous child marriage with the father of her child, a 19-year-old veteran who struggled with PTSD and anger management.
Preventing Lifesaving Legislation
Besides being a reason that children may be forced into marriages, religion can also slow down or even prevent the passage of lifesaving child marriage legislation.
In 2018, New Jersey became the second state to ban child marriage. However, in 2017, former governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have ended child marriage in the state a year earlier. He claimed he vetoed it to be sensitive towards religious customs.
Christie wrote, "An exclusion without exceptions [to child marriage] would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.”
While the story in New Jersey had a happy ending under a new governor, Phil Murphy, this does not happen in all states. Child marriage is still legal in 46 states. Therefore, it’s important to understand the many cultural and societal factors that make child marriage possible, like religion.
That’s why Students Against Child Marriage works to make child marriage a household concern, a critical first step on the road to ending child marriage in the U.S. To take that first step with SACM, sign up for regular blog updates, so you too can stay up-to-date with all things child marriage-related.