Forced Child Marriage Isn’t Just A Third World Problem: It’s Happening In The U.S., Too

Forced child marriage, often considered only a third-world problem, occurs with alarming regularity in the United States as well, and there are surprisingly few legal protections for child brides, Public Radio International is reporting.

Although many states have legal minimum ages at which a person can marry (usually 18), judges are allowed to make certain exceptions – parental consent, for example. The problem, according to Fraidy Reiss of Unchained at Last, a charity that helps child brides escape forced marriages, is that “parental consent” can often be a euphemism for “parental coercion,” and judges and law clerks may not be able to legally stop a forced marriage even if a child bride is visibly in distress.

“The problem with parental consent is that there is no process in place to ensure that it’s not actually parental coercion. Even in a situation where a girl is sobbing openly and doesn’t want this marriage, her parents can sign the marriage license application and force her into a marriage without the clerk having any authority to intervene.”

In fact, judges have such wide latitude that there is theoretically no bottom limit at which a person can be considered too young to marry. In fact, in 2006, a 10-year-old boy was legally married to an 18-year-old woman in New Jersey, thanks to a judge’s discretion.

forced child marriage US

Getting reliable figures for the number of forced child marriages in the United States is surprisingly difficult. Forty-eight of the 50 states, according to Reiss, don’t have reliable data on the age of participants in a marriage.

And from the states that do provide such data, a rather horrifying picture is emerging. In an October 2015 New York Times guest column, Reiss notes that in New Jersey alone, 3,499 children were married between 1995 and 2012. Of those marriages, 178 included at least one participant who was between the ages of 10 and 15 (the vast majority included at least one participant who was 16 or 17).

In 91 percent of those marriages, an underage girl was married to an adult man (as Reiss notes, a situation that would otherwise “triggered statutory rape charges, not a marriage license). In one New Jersey case, a 12-year-old girl was legally “allowed” to marry a 25-year-old man.

The majority of forced child marriages in the U.S. take place among families from immigrant communities coming from cultures where that sort of thing is expected or accepted, or at least, looked the other way at by authorities. Reiss says that families force their children into a marriage for a variety of reasons, including to control their children’s (particularly girls’) sexuality and behavior, to preserve the family’s “honor,” or to gain status within the community, among other reasons.

However, forced child marriages also happen in so-called “American” communities, particularly in deeply religious groups such as certain Mormon or ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.

For example, one example of forced child marriage occurring on a large scale surfaced in Arizona, where authorities discovered that the Mormon splinter group Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), led by convicted felon Warren Jeffs, was routinely forcing girls as young as 14 to marry much older men, often in polygamous marriages.

Reiss would like to put a stop to the practice of forced child marriages in the U.S., and through her organization, is campaigning for legislation that would make the legal marriage age 18 in all 50 states with very few exceptions, such as pregnancy.

“We need to put a stop to this, and ending those exceptions that allow children to get married is a no brainer.”

As of this writing, only eight states (plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have specific laws on the books that prohibit forced child marriages, according to attn.

[Image via Shutterstock/Svitlana Sokolova]