Loopholes in state laws are allowing child marriage to flourish in the U.S., despite research showing that the practice puts young people at risk of serious, lifelong harm.
More than 200,000 children under 18 were married from 2000 to 2015 in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization working to end gender-based violence. The vast majority were underage girls who married adult men.
“America really does have a child marriage problem,” said Jeanne Smoot, author of the report. “It hurts children here, just as it does globally, and we are overdue to tackle it.”
While most states set a minimum age of 18 to marry, they typically allow exceptions if children have parental consent, or if a judge approves the union.
In recent years, advocates have lobbied for stricter laws on child marriage, with success. In 2016, Virginia enacted a law that limits marriage to those age 18 or older, with an exception for court-emancipated minors. This year, Texas and New York passed restrictions on child marriage.
But those are the only three states that limit marriage to legal adults. Startlingly, 25 states allow children of any age to be married, as long as exceptions are met. In Missouri, for example, children who are 15 or older can marry with parental consent. Children under 15 can marry with a judge’s approval. From 2000 to 2014, over 800 children age 15 or younger in Missouri were married using these exceptions.
The report highlights the challenges that child brides face ― and how difficult it can be for them to escape a marriage if they want to do so.
“The adult in these relationships typically holds all the cards and all the power,” Smoot said. “They know and manipulate the dependance of the child spouse, from the roof over their heads to a ride to the grocery store.”
Even in cases where children enter marriages voluntarily, the long-term consequences can be devastating, said Vivian Hamilton, a professor at William & Mary Law School who studies child marriage.
“Girls who marry in their teens are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school, and they are four times less likely to finish college,” Hamilton said. “For girls who marry as minors, they are 31 percent more likely to live in poverty later than those who delay marriage.”
Individuals who marry young also suffer significantly more mental health problems, Hamilton added.
Child marriage can have multiple roots, said Fraidy…