America has a big child marriage problem.
In the past year we have heard more about child marriage reaching U.S. soil. We were first disgusted as we saw headlines about young girls from a crumbling Afghanistan being married to adult men en route to their new homes.
Then, last month, we all clutched our pearls and watched as the Tennessee legislature almost passed an anti-same-sex marriage bill that would have also removed any language specifying at what age couples could marry in the state.
Upon learning that child marriage is happening in our own backyard, many assume it is a custom brought over from abroad.
Nearly 300,000 minors were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Some were as young as 10 years old.
Child marriage happens in every community, culture, race, ethnicity and religion and is legal in all but six U.S. states. The highest percentage of underage marriages are in rural areas and are a phenomenon of poverty.
No religion or culture encourages child marriage, and the U.S State Department views child marriage as a human rights violation.
So how do 10-year olds end up legally marrying 34-year-olds?
Nine states – California, Washington, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Mississippi, West Virginia, Michigan and Massachusetts – have no specified minimum age to marry after exceptions.
In 2020, Indiana raised the minimum age to marry from 15 to 16. But data shows the law doesn't go far enough to protect vulnerable Hoosier children.
According to the most recent study done by Unchained at Last and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 96% of children wed were age 16 or 17. Some 86% were girls married to adult men with an average spousal age difference of four years.
According to that same study, 60,000 of those marriages occurred with a spousal age difference that would have been considered statutory rape. Instead, the adult spouse received a get-out-of-jail-free card and a child bride. A description of one such marriage in Indiana highlighted this horrific discrepancy.
Theresa testified that she became pregnant at 14 and was told that she had two options: get married or have an abortion. She quickly married the 18-year-old father of her child and things soon turned dark.
Her new husband spent the first few months of their marriage in jail for sex acts with another minor. The other girl was also 14, but her parents sought justice for their daughter while Theresa's parents signed her up for a life of hardship that would ripple down to her grandchildren.
Children cannot consent to marriage on their own; a parent, guardian or judge must consent for them.
Minors cannot enter into legally binding contracts with lawyers, sign for a lease, open a bank account or access domestic violence shelters.
Girls who are married are denied autonomy over their bodies and struggle to access family planning or basic medical care, putting their lives and their unborn children's lives at risk.
These adult men often abandon the family, leaving behind the mother and children to survive without basic education or skills to support the family. The family becomes a family in crisis, often relying on social service support and government benefits.
Girls who marry before age 18 face a higher risk of sexual and domestic violence. Other obstacles include a greater risk of poverty and increased medical and mental health problems.
Some argue that if an adolescent girl becomes pregnant, marriage is a solution. The belief is that this baby will be born into a stable home and provided for. But with an 80% divorce rate, these children are born into the first of many broken homes.
Child marriage provides no protections or benefits to minors and are most often a scam to cover up a crime. Child marriage is the opposite of what marriage is meant to be.
There might be a handful of marriages that really are two lovestruck teenagers who can't wait to get married. But for most, it is a gut-wrenching form of sexual exploitation.
A longer courtship will result in a strong bond for those rare couples and fewer children being exploited at alarming rates.
The solution is simple: No one can marry until the age of 18 in any state, no exceptions. This needs to be the law in every state. Otherwise, you have children being transported across state lines.
Make child marriage illegal in America.
I was 14 when my predator convinced my mentally ill mother to let him marry me.
He was 42 and twice divorced, unemployed, and thankfully would pass out drunk most nights.
I wasn't pregnant, so this made things only slightly more difficult. He dragged me to seven different states until we were married on May 11, 1995. I had turned 15 in March of that year. At age 19 I fled that relationship with only a sixth-grade education and have been trying to recover from that traumatic experience for more than two decades.
Child marriage is a cancer to American society, and we must all stand up and end it for the sake of our children.
If we see marrying our young girls off as a solution to any problem, then we as a nation have failed our children.
Genevieve Meyer is co-founder and executive director of the Resiliency Foundation.