For years, the United States has campaigned against child marriage around the world, from Guatemala to Zimbabwe. But we should listen to ourselves: Forty-five states here in America continue to allow girls and boys under 18 to wed.
Girls as young as 10 are occasionally married quite legally in the United States. Nine states have established no absolute minimum age for marriage.
A study this year found that nearly 300,000 children — meaning age 17 and under — were married in the United States from 2000 to 2018. An overwhelming majority were 16- or 17- year-old girls, on average marrying a man four years older. But more than 1,000 were 14 or younger, and five were only 10 years old. Some were wed to people far older.
“No one asked me for consent,” remembered Patricia Abatemarco, who as an eighth grader was married just after her 14th birthday to a man who was 27. “There was nothing romantic about it. I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t have a crush on him. I was afraid of him.”
A judge in Florence, Ala., married the couple in the courthouse, and then the couple went to the park outside — where the new bride spotted a playground and left the groom to play on the jungle gym.
Abatemarco, now 55, said the path to this marriage began when she was 12 and living in a middle-class home. Her parents were secular, but she had become quite religious and during a personal crisis sought help from an evangelical Christian telephone hotline. A counselor, Mark, showed up and offered free counseling services; these became increasingly intense, she said, and he began to forcibly rape her repeatedly.
At 13, she became pregnant by these rapes. She didn’t know what to do, but Mark and her mother favored marriage. This solved their problems: For Abatemarco’s mother, it averted the stigma of an out-of-wedlock baby in the house, and for Mark, it allowed him to dodge rape charges. Abatemarco desperately wanted to keep the baby, in hopes of having someone to love and comfort her, and her mom told her this was the only way she could do so.
While this happened decades ago, similar reasoning leads to many youthful marriages today.
I’ve been writing about child marriages in the United States since 2017, when I came across the case of an 11-year-old girl, Sherry Johnson, who had been forced to marry her rapist in Florida. Child marriage was then allowed in some form in all 50 states.
Now, thanks in part to heroic work by an advocacy organization, Unchained at Last, five states have completely barred marriages by people under 18: Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and (just this month) Rhode Island. New York has passed a similar bill that is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Read more here.
Number of Women and Girls At Risk: 25,000
Status: Existing Legislation Needs Strengthening
Improve by adding: Prosecuting parents/guardian, felony offense