The United States is very vocal in its abhorrence of child marriages and has often championed many initiatives to get rid of a trend of child marriages in developing nations.
For instance, the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, released last year by the State Department lists as a key goal efforts to reduce child and forced marriages. It declares that child marriages that feature children below 18 are a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood” by forcing her “into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature.”
All that is true of the repercussions of child marriages and in many African nations, 2016 was a year when the battle against child brides was fought and won on many fronts. Some African nations increased the legal ages of girls to be engaged in marriages and put in place punishments that included prison terms which would encourage adherence to the law.
As a leader in the fight against child marriages, it is surprising that the United States still has sizable cases of child marriages within its own borders. Probably more shocking is the fact that child marriages in the United States can often work their way to being legal.
Child marriages in the US persist because of legal loopholes
Generally, with the exception of Nebraska (19) and Mississippi (21), the legal age of marriage in the United States is eighteen. However, every state allows exceptions to this legal age that include; allowing 16 or 17 year olds to get married with parental consent or exceptions subject to judicial approval for cases of pregnancy.
What that translates to at the end of the day is 27 American jurisdictions having no minimum age requirement and others having a minimum age that is pegged at thirteen years.
Of course, the numbers of child marriages in the United States are not as grave as in some developing nations but they are still significant enough to present a problem. Data gathered by Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States, showed that from 2000 to 2010 in 38 states, more than 167,000 children (almost all of them girls, some as young 12) were married mostly to men 18 or older.
The incidence of child marriage in America has persisted beyond the proven negative effects because most state lawmakers have resisted passing stricter legislation. The reluctance to passing stricter legislation is often explained as a fear that such measures might unlawfully stifle religious freedom. There is also still a persisting belief that marriage is the best or sometimes only solution for teen pregnancies.
Bringing focus to the United State’s own struggles with child marriage is not to say that they should stop their activism against it in African nations and other developing nations but rather to call to mind the dire repercussions of child marriages no matter where they are found and therefore call to mind the need to address the issue whether in one’s backyard or abroad.