Child marriage, most Westerners would assume, happens only in far-flung countries where women’s rights—let alone rights for children—are a foreign concept. Most Americans would be shocked to learn that legal marriages between adolescent girls as young as 12 and adult men happen on our own democratic turf—and they’re happening right now.
It’s true that most U.S. states set the age of consent between 16 and 18. However, legal loopholes in just about every one enable adults to have sex with minors and avoid statutory rape charges, thanks to judicially approved marriages and laws that have gone untouched since the 1970s. Although few thorough investigations have been conducted, the Tahirih Justice Center discovered tens of thousands of children were married in the last decade.
In Virginia alone, 4,474 children aged 13 and up (the vast majority female) were married between 2004 and 2013. This problem runs just as deep in New York, where state data shows 3,853 children were married between 2000 and 2010, many younger than their spouses by a decade or more.
Fraidy Reiss, founder and director of Unchained At Last, an organization dedicated to ending forced marriages in the United States, says child marriages can be found across religions, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As a victim of an arranged marriage herself, Reiss knows the profound effects marriage has on a child—from stunted educational opportunities to poor healthcare and violence—as well as how difficult it is for young women to achieve independence once they’ve been trapped in a marriage. As unbelievable as it sounds, current laws state that a child under 18 can get married, but she must wait until adulthood to file for divorce.
Dangerous legal contradictions like these can, however, be easily fixed. For instance, this past March, the Tahirih Justice Center helped pass a law in Virginia that permits only emancipated minors aged 16 or 17 to obtain marriage licenses, following a lengthy investigation. By writing letters to state legislators that draw attention to this problem, we can close these loopholes and finally bring an end to child marriage in America.