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Age is More than Just a Number: Child Marriage in the U.S.

Why This Topic: Because Childhood is a Human Right

As defined by Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriages, “child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age” (Girls Not Brides). Upon discovering how widespread this problem really is in the U.S., I asked, “but don’t we have laws to prevent this from happening?” However, as of January 2019, 48 out of 50 U.S. states have exceptions in their laws which allow children to marry” (“Child Marriage”). Although state laws could have saved thousands of child marriage victims, this issue typically begins with children being shamed in their religious and social communities or being threatened with ostracism, beatings, or even death (Reiss 2015). When pairing parental pressure with weak law enforcement, it results in child marriage victims who have lost all independence, security (Reiss 2017).  

In researching this topic, I hope to improve the matter of child-marriage in the United States by spreading local and international awareness. By the end of this project, I also want to understand the motives of parents, community leaders, and judges who allow this heinous pattern to continue. Moreover, since the U.S. has a great deal of international influence, by addressing child marriage in the U.S., I hope to improve this issue on a global scale.

It’s Nothing New

In 1937, at nine years old, Eunice Winstead was officially wed to 22 years old, Charles Johns by Reverend Walter Lamb in Sneedville, Tennessee (“America has its child brides”).  In our modern day society, hearing this on your nightly news or reading it in the latest magazine would shock any parent. Unfortunately, this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, child marriage has existed in ancient Rome, Greece, and India long before the 20th century. During this period, child marriage was a “faster way to reproduce” because the average life expectancy did not exceed 45 years (Nag, 2016). Moreover, the minimum age of marriage was “particularly elastic” if parents wanted to marry their daughters to older men to establish financial or political alliances (Bullough, 2004).

Nine-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns and her husband, Charlie Johns, 22, at their home in Sneedville, Tennesse in February of 1937.

In addition, every year, almost 100 girls were turned away from public schools and because they were married (“Child Marriages”). While their friends attended class and played in their neighborhoods, child brides were forced to give up innocent pastimes like jumping rope (Loeb, 1925). Under the English ideology of coverture, when a girl gets married, regardless of her age, she loses all legal independence and becomes one legal unit with her husband (Bullough, 2004). Such conditions often put young girls at risk of physical and emotional abuse, rape, and death due to early childbirth. Specifically, in 1930, out of the 324,325 cases of white mothers giving birth, 1,251 were between the age of 10 and 14. Moreover, out of the 7, 380 maternal mortalities in 1930, 25 were among girls under the age of 15 (“America has its child brides”). Unfortunately, even with the amount of progress we have made, as a country, we still have a lot of work to do.

Similarly, the traditional English child marriage practices brought to the Americas by a British colonist in the 1600s was solidified as more people migrated to the U.S. Interestingly enough, many Americans who knew about child marriage issues in developing nations like Africa and Asia were not aware of the problem in their own backyards. Although the number of child brides under the age of 15 between 1920 and 1930 declined from 5,554 to 4,241, (“Child Marriages”) by 1930, of all 15-year-old girls, 1.3% were already married (“America has its child brides”).

Even though the statistics above show that the U.S. has decreased child marriage by nearly 60% in ten years, there is lots of work left to do

Alive and Well: The Presence of Child Marriage in our Modern America

While you need to be 18 to vote, get a tattoo, or even buy fireworks in the U.S., 48 out of the 50 states still allow children to get married before they are even considered adults (McCoy, 2018). Furthermore, 18 out of the 50 states do not have a minimum age of marriage (Reiss, 2018). Therefore, between 2000 and 2015, there were 248,000 reported cases of child marriage in the United States; an average of 40-45 marriages per day (McCoy, 2018). More than 85% of these unions were between a young female and a man that was more than 5-15 years her senior (Tsui, 2017). In addition, in 460 of the 248,000 cases, these girls married men who were 40 years old or older, the greatest age gap being between a 14-year-old girl and her 74-year-old husband.

Although child marriage was justified when the life expectancy was below 45, for the purpose of faster reproduction, today, it is riskier and completely inexcusable. Victims of child marriage are 31% more likely to live in poverty, 50% more likely to drop out of school, and four times less likely to get a college degree. Moreover, 80% of child marriages end in divorce, leaving these minors without support(McCoy, 2018). Furthermore, victims of child marriage are three times more likely to suffer from physical abuse by their spouses (Clinton, 2019).

In addition to resistance posed by lawmakers, some of the laws that are already in place put underage girls at a greater disadvantage. Minors who are forced into marriage through parental consent are not able to file for divorce or obtain an attorney. Furthermore, since minors who try to escape their family or spouse are considered “runaways,” authorities are required to return them to their spouses. Due to their status as “runaways,” nonprofits that try and help these child brides escape can also be charged criminally. Moreover, domestic violence shelters are not able to take in children who are not accompanied by a parent (Clinton, 2019). Therefore, these children have nowhere else to turn and are left to suffer in silence.

All Those in Favor of Marriage ONLY for Adults, Say Aye!

Although child marriage is known to exist in developing countries like Niger or India, many Americans do not realize that it’s also a problem in their own back yard. Therefore, nonprofits like Unchained At Last and Equality Now work to raise awareness and pass laws that prohibit child marriage under any circumstance. For Fraidy Reiss, the executive director of Unchained at Last and an ex-child marriage victim, this issue hits very close to home. “Child marriage is a human rights abuse that destroys girls’ lives”, says Reiss “and we are determined to end it in the United States…We must change dangerous federal policies and laws that allow, and in some cases even encourage, marriage before age 18” (Reiss, 2018). Therefore, throughout the years, members of Unchained at Last gather in crowds around the U.S., “dressed in bridal gowns and veils, with chained arms and taped mouths” to illustrate why this is wrong.

Several times through the year, members of Unchained At Last gather in front of political buildings to raise awareness about Child Marriage

Through these peaceful protests, Unchained, at Last, was able to pass laws in New Jersey and Delaware that completely banned child marriages (Boyer, 2019). Furthermore, on December 10, 2018, also known as Human Rights Day, these two groups, along with other allies, came together to start a National Coalition to end child marriage in the U.S. (Reiss, 2018). Through this Coalition, these groups want to target loopholes in rape laws, prohibit “federal laws, policies or regulations permit(s)” that “encourage or facilitate child marriage”, and establish federal standards that “[define] marriage under the age of 18 as a human-rights abuse”  (Reiss, 2018). With the help of groups like Unchained at Last, between 2000 and 2010, the number of minors marrying under the age of 18 has dropped by 61 %, bring the U.S. slightly closer to eliminating underage and forced marriage by 2030 (Tsui, 2017).

What are the Challenges?

Even though states like New Jersey and Delaware have made tremendous progress by completely outlawing underage marriages, many states still refuse to pass laws that protect minors. In March of 2018, lawmakers in New Hampshire dismissed a bill that would increase the age of marriage from 13 to 18 because it would hurt pregnant teenagers and young military members. (Yakupitiyage, 2017). Similarly, before New Jersey passed its law in 2018, Governor Chris Christie had vetoed a bill that denied marriage to minors because it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state” (Yakupitiyage, 2017).  Prior to Christie, Sen. Gerald Cardinale of New Jersey claimed that outlawing child marriage would harm 16-year-old girls who feel “genuine affection” for 50-year-old men (Clinton, 2019). While that may be true in a few cases, what about the remaining girls who don’t feel any genuine affection, but are still forced into marriage against their will?

In this video, Sherry Johnson tells her story as a former Child Marriage victim and her legal and parental situations forced her to marry her rapist.

Furthermore, some of the laws that are currently exist put underage girls at a greater disadvantage than before. Specifically, minors who are forced into marriage through parental consent are not able to file for divorce or obtain an attorney. Since these minors, who try to escape their family or spouse are considered “runaways,” authorities are required to return them to their spouses. Due to their status as “runaways,” nonprofits that try and help these child brides escape are not able to do their job because they can be charged criminally. Moreover, domestic violence shelters are not able to take in children who are not accompanied by a parent (Clinton, 2019). Therefore, these children have nowhere else to turn and are forced to suffer in silence.

Marriage is For Adults, But Activism is For Everyone

MICRO:

  1. Educate yourself. Majority of people in the United States do not know about Child Marriage or how detrimental it is. Therefore, the first step in fixing this problem is learning about it. This can be done through research, hearing the stories of former child marriage victims, and learning about nonprofits that fight child marriage.
  2. A huge part of improving any troubling situation is also raising awareness. If people don’t know that such a problem exists, they will not feel a need to fight for change. Therefore, you should speak to your family and friends or present to your classmates. If your school brings in speakers, you connect with someone from an anti-child marriage program to come speak. All I ask is that you continue the conversation.

MACRO:

  1. If you feel like you have raised enough awareness in your own community, there are things you can do to implement change on a greater scale. For example, if Unchained, at Last, holds a Chain In close to you, you could sign up on the website and participate.
  2. Individuals also have the power to form clubs in their communities and schools that host small protests against child marriage and that lobby for specific laws. Lobbying for such laws can be done by meeting with your state legislators through activist groups or writing your state senators and governors

LAWS NEED TO CHANGE:

  1. Raising the age of marriage to 18 and ensuring that both parties are willingly
  2. Punishing everyone who sexually or domestically has abused their spouse, regardless of marital status.
  3. Granting current child marriage victims accesses to divorce, an attorney, and help from domestic violence shelters without retaliation.
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COMMENTS: 7
  1. April 26, 2019 by Bella.Salathe Reply

    I had heard about this topic before, and the thought of children practically being forced into marriage disgusts me. I thought you did a really good job on a lot of things. The first thing I really liked was the number of statistics and data that you had. It really pushes your argument really well. The second thing I loved about your project was where you described the different types of steps we can take to end child marriage. Having it very clear was really powerful. This is a difficult topic and you did it all very well.

    • April 26, 2019 by Yoska.Guta Reply

      Thank you so much! I hope that many more people feel that way and want to take action. If you have any suggestions for other steps that we can take to improve this situation please let me know

  2. April 28, 2019 by Charles.Jones Reply

    Hi Yoska,
    This is an awesome project! I am fascinated by many of the statistics and was not aware that child marriage was such a prevalent problem in the U.S. Also, the buttons add a great touch on making the web-page more interactive.

  3. April 28, 2019 by Zoe Reply

    Yoska, your page is so educational and I learned so many things that I didn’t know before. For example, I knew about child marriage, but had wrongly assumed that it was not an issue in America. Now knowing the amount of child marriages in America, I am astounded and angered that our government has not set more regulations, prohibiting these marriages!

  4. April 29, 2019 by Margot Reply

    Hi!! your page is so well done – all of the statistics and information are shocking and sheds new light on something that isn’t covered enough. My favorite part was the “Marriage is for adults, but activism is for everyone” section. It provides clear and helpful information on how to help. Great job!!

  5. April 29, 2019 by Inês Reis Reply

    Hey Yoska! I loved your website. This is definitely a topic that should be talked about more often. I found it crazy that “ in 460 of the 248,000 cases, these girls married men who were 40 years old or older, the greatest age gap being between a 14-year-old girl and her 74-year-old husband.” I live in Portugal, but want to do something about this. Do you think forming clubs in my community and school against child marriage would help at all? What are other things I could do besides educating people about this issue that you think would truly make a difference?

  6. May 03, 2019 by Daisy.Huang Reply

    This was super informative! It’s really horrifying and sad to learn that child brides are still a thing in the United States where people say “we don’t need feminism”. I’m super glad that someone did a project specifically focusing on the US because sadly it took me until reading your project to really understand the issue. Thank you for sharing

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