Child Marriage in the US

by AHA Foundation Executive Director

The statistics are staggering. Each day around the world almost 39,000 girls become child brides, often marrying men who are significantly older. Even if it is not legally defined as such, this coerced or forced marriage of minors is both rape and slavery. While we generally associate child marriage with developing countries, permissive laws on the minimum age of marriage in many states mean that far more children are at risk in the US than many might assume.

There is an exhaustive evidence base that points to the devastating impact child marriage has on a girl’s life trajectory. She is more likely to drop out of primary or secondary school. She is more likely to get pregnant before the age of 18, thus increasing the risk of maternal and child mortality. She is more likely to suffer from depression. She is more likely to experience domestic violence. She is more likely to live in poverty, as her livelihood opportunities are limited. Knowing what we know about child marriage, why do we allow it to happen in the US?

For years my own work has entailed supporting gender equality and women’s empowerment in developing countries. Ending the practice of child marriage is considered a critical step for improving the status of women and girls. In 2010, I testified on Capitol Hill about the importance of addressing child marriage because, in addition to being critical for sustainable development, it is a human rights violation that no country that values the liberty of the individual should tolerate.

In many cases, child marriage is a harmful practice stemming from culture, religion or tradition and a form of honor violence. A recent op-ed published in the New York Times written by the Executive Director of Unchained At Last, a sister organization to ours, titled “America’s Child-Marriage Problem” highlights how in many states minors are allowed to marry if their parents approve or a judge considers it to be in their “best interest.” The piece also states that “parents give many reasons for forcing their children into marriage, including controlling the children’s sexuality and behavior and protecting ‘family honor.’” We are allowing families and communities to railroad girls into marriage. This must be stopped.

We need to protect the rights of EVERY girl in the US through education, community outreach, and legislation. As Ayaan calls for a “national action plan” to end honor violence, preventing child marriage will be part of the campaign. Children have the right to be children, not brides.