Federal Loophole Responsible for Countless Child Marriages in the U.S.

The United States Department of State calls child marriage “gender-based violence.”  The United States Agency for International Development calls it “a human rights abuse.” Across the board, our government condemns child marriage worldwide and provides funding for programs that fight this abuse overseas. But the U.S. government makes exceptions when it comes to children living in the U.S.

The state laws within the United States do not align with our own internationally proposed standards of how other countries should treat their children. Forty-eight states are failing to protect girls from child marriage. They have dangerous loopholes and exceptions that allow for marriage, some even have no minimum age for marriage. Shockingly, it is legal for a U.S. citizen child to sponsor a visa for a foreign-born spouse or fiancé(e).

Shockingly, it is legal for a U.S. citizen child to sponsor a visa for a foreign-born spouse or fiancé(e).

At AHA Foundation, cases of girls seeking help because they were being forced into unwanted marriages initially raised the alarm about the existence of, and complications surrounding, child marriage in the United States. Children facing a forced marriage encounter serious complications trying to retain an attorney, leave an abusive home, or enter a domestic violence shelter.

Child marriage is often forced marriage.

However, studies show that even if a teenager wishes to enter a marriage, she exposes herself to serious harms. Vivian Hamilton, a law professor from William & Mary, published an important report on the dangers of child marriage in the United States, “The Age of Marital Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriages.” Professor Hamilton found that those who marry early are 50% more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to finish college than their peers. Women who marry as teens are more likely to live in poverty later in life and suffer from many serious health and psychological problems.

These marriages, which have the very real potential of leading to detrimental lifelong consequences, are also likely doomed to fail, with a 70-80% chance of divorce.

What’s more, glaring federal loopholes leave countless children vulnerable to forced and child marriage in the United States. Although the U.S. government spends millions of dollars trying to curb child marriage overseas, a minor who is a U.S. citizen is allowed to sponsor a visa for a spouse or fiancé(e). In fact, there is technically no minimum age requirement to sponsor a spousal or fiancé(e) visa. These loopholes leave the most vulnerable children, often girls promised to adult men, defenseless to families who hope to offer U.S. citizenship in exchange for a marital agreement.

How many children in the U.S. have sponsored a foreign-born spouse or fiancé(e)? AHA Foundation requested this information from the federal government through a Freedom of Information Act request in June of 2017 and has yet to receive a concrete answer.

Putting in place a minimum age of 18 to sponsor a spousal/fiancé(e) visa is a simple, common sense solution that would protect U.S. children from the very real threats associated with forced and child marriage.

Given the serious impacts of child marriage, one case is too many. Unfortunately, even though there is plenty of evidence showing the harms, the U.S. government is failing to take necessary steps to stop this practice within its borders. Putting in place a minimum age of 18 to sponsor a spousal/fiancé(e) visa is a simple, common sense solution that would protect U.S. children from the very real threats associated with forced and child marriage. Moreover, seeing that marriage law is largely established by the individual states, passing state legislation that would prohibit child marriage is another critical step in protecting our children. The U.S. government’s efforts to end this child abuse overseas are admirable, but let’s not forget our own children.

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