Fight Against Child Marriage in the U.S. at a Crossroads

Fight Against Child Marriage in the U.S. at a Crossroads

AHA Foundation's Brooke Bumgarner (center top) and Amanda Parker (middle second row) join other proponents against child marriage to advocate to the Massachusetts state legislation.

Published on 4/21/2021

For years, AHA Foundation has demanded zero tolerance for child marriage across the country. During this time, most states have chosen to sit on the sidelines and not protect girls. Only four states have passed bills that completely outlaw marriage under the age of 18. This Spring the tide could finally be turning: 12 states are eyeing new bills to ban child marriage and could decide the future of child marriage in the whole nation. AHA Foundation is on the front lines advocating for the bans without exceptions and we need your support.

Fight Against Child Marriage in the U.S. at a Crossroads

Our multi-year fight to end child marriage in the U.S. remains closer to the beginning than to the end. As it stands, only four states have bills with zero exceptions for child marriage. But there is promising news—we are on the brink of building much-needed momentum against this practice.

Right now, there are 12 states debating bills that would set the legal age for marriage at 18. With these laws, not only would those states provide protection for thousands of girls, they could also grab the attention of other states, set an example of how they are saving lives and sway the inactive states to take action.

This is all an ‘If’ situation, though. Until these bills are passed, girls across the country will remain in danger of being wed. To get a better understanding of where we are at in our battle against child marriage, we spoke with AHA Foundation’s Program Development Coordinator Brooke Bumgarner, who has been on the front lines of these fights.

AHA Foundation: To start, can you tell us how prevalent child marriage is within the United States?

Brooke Bumgarner: Recently updated data gathered by Unchained at Last, an organization we work closely with to end child marriage, found that nearly 300,000 children were married between 2000 and 2018, with a few children as young as 10 years old. Alarmingly, some 96 percent of the children were 16 or 17 years old (legislators seem less inclined to help teens of these ages), and 86 percent were young girls wed to adult men.

AHA Foundation: Let me repeat what you just told me: we know that 300,000 children were married between 2000 and 2018. And since the laws have not changed much at all since 2018, this means the children are likely still getting married in the U.S. It is hard to wrap our minds around this, isn’t it? Are legislators and the public aware of this? What are some reactions you receive when you share these numbers in meetings with legislators and others who can make a difference for the girls?

“…many people are quick to condemn child marriage in other parts of the world but are hesitant to do so when looking at it through a domestic lens.”

Brooke Bumgarner: Many people don’t know that child marriage is something that actually happens here in the United States. Most people I speak with, on a personal or professional level, are completely unaware this is happening right under our noses.

Child marriage is largely seen to be a foreign issue that happens “over there” in some distant country. So, not only can it be difficult to educate the public, legislators, and other important stakeholders on the prevalence of child and forced marriages within the U.S., it can be difficult to convince them that this is a serious problem that needs immediate attention. What makes this even more complicated is the fact that many people are quick to condemn child marriage in other parts of the world but are hesitant to do so when looking at it through a domestic lens. 

AHA Foundation: Knowing that child marriage is prevalent in the U.S., can you tell us if state legislation is being used to prevent this abuse? Which states have an anti-child marriage bill in play, where do those bills stand, and what do they contain? 

Brooke Bumgarner: Remarkably, we are now standing at a crossroads for state legislation against child marriage. Early this year, 19 states introduced bills concerning child marriage. Despite not all of the bills being strong enough to completely eliminate child marriage, the good news is that 12 of these bills are what we like to call hardline 18 bills—bills that mandate 18 as the minimum age of marriage with no exceptions. These are the bills that AHA Foundation testifies in support of. 


*Seven states introduced bills that contain dangerous loopholes that still allow minors to wed with exceptions like parental consent or judicial approval.

**West Virginia and Mississippi’s bills died in committee earlier this session. SB428 passed in Arkansas and was signed into law by Governor Hutchinson on March 29th. Parental consent is now an exception to Arkansas’ minimum age of marriage (18) under the newly enacted, Act 470; minors who are 17 years old may marry with the consent of a parent or guardian.

AHA Foundation: Please help our supporters understand why it is critical that child marriage bills have zero exceptions.

Brooke Bumgarner: AHA Foundation advocates for hardline 18 bills because the exceptions to the law often cause harm to girls. We know this from our experience working with girls at risk and survivors. The most common exceptions include parental consent, judicial approval, pregnancy exceptions, and emancipation. Parental consent, however, is the most prevalent exception. This is dangerous because there is no mechanism in place to ensure that the required parental consent is not in fact parental coercion, like in the cases of Sherry Johnson or Genevieve Meyer

Children who have not yet reached the legal age of majority can easily be forced or coerced into marriage or worse, trapped in an abusive marriage. When minors are coerced to marry they often fear familial violence should they refuse to comply, and many may be physically or emotionally manipulated into accepting the unwanted marriage. This then places the responsibility on the girls to speak up in front of a judge, but this is unrealistic and unfair to expect, considering they may fear very real threats to their safety if they do not comply.

Marriage is a serious legal contract. Thus, AHA believes it should be reserved for those who have reached the legal age of majority; in these instances, minors can access all rights bestowed upon them at the age of majority. Conversely, when minors are under the legal age of majority they face significant barriers if they try to leave home, enter a domestic violence shelter, retain an attorney, file a legal action such as a divorce, etc. 

AHA Foundation: What about judicial approval as an exception for allowing child marriage – why can’t we rely on judges to protect girls? 

Brooke Bumgarner: Judicial approval loophole places the burden on children. It is unlikely that a minor will disclose the forced nature of the marriage to a judge. It is also concerning to think about the fact that in many states judicial approval is not based on any specific criteria. As such, what is intended as a safeguard actually does very little in the way of child protection; we have no way of knowing what went into a judge’s decision to approve of a child marriage. 

AHA Foundation: Many legislators draw a line when it comes to pregnancy exceptions. Tell us why even in those circumstances, when an underage girl is pregnant, allowing her to wed is not in the best interest of her and her child.

Ideas about what child marriage looks like in the U.S. seem to disrupt the notion that all child marriages violate children’s human rights.

Brooke Bumgarner: Pregnant teenagers deserve to be protected just as much as every other minor from the dangers of child marriage. Horrifically, the exception is frequently used to cover up rape. Unchained at Last’s most recent data found that since 2000, 60,000 marriages occurred at an age or spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime. However, in reality, 88 percent of those marriages gave a rapist a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a marriage license.

AHA Foundation: That is very disturbing. It’s yet another statistic that shows how urgent this issue is and how important it is to pass the child marriage bans. There is one more exception you mentioned and it is lesser known, it is called emancipation of minors. What does it mean and what are the risks associated with this exception for allowing child marriage?

Brooke Bumgarner: At AHA, we believe that it is dangerous to allow the marriage of minors if they are emancipated for a number of reasons. On one hand, there is a very real possibility that minors will be forced to emancipate so that they can be forced to marry. And on the other hand, emancipation does not prevent the many negative consequences associated with early marriage. Emancipated or not, a child who is wed before the age of 18 is at high risk of suffering from physical abuse, depression, anxiety, or other psychological harm.

We also need to take into account that emancipation only grants minors some of the rights of adulthood and likely ends parents’ financial obligation to them. This leaves minors incredibly vulnerable and may make it harder to leave an abusive marriage. Regardless of which exception is present, some of the most common dangers include practical and legal barriers to help in the face of an unwanted marriage and the long-term consequences of early marriage.

AHA Foundation: What are some things that states are getting caught up on that are making child marriage bills stall? Have there been any surprises along the way?

Brooke Bumgarner: Ideas about what child marriage looks like in the U.S. seem to disrupt the notion that all child marriages violate children’s human rights. One of the most common arguments centers around the idea that “genuine couples” should be allowed to marry, to which AHA responds, we cannot call child marriage “genuine” under any circumstances. The U.S. Department of State defines any marriage under the age of 18, as a human rights abuse, so we must also ask how any human rights abuse can be deemed “genuine”? We at AHA believe it can’t. 

When we think about the statistics that were shared earlier, that around 85 percent of minor girls are wed to adult men, this confirms that these marriages are not the stories of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, girls are often wed at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that would otherwise constitute statutory rape under the state’s laws. This is another horrifying loophole that AHA seeks to close. The fact that a would-be rapist can essentially be given a get-out-of-jail card in the form of a marriage certificate is troubling to say the least. 

This year we have watched multiple states attempt to confront child marriage with bills that allow various exceptions. Although we advocate for hardline 18 bills, we tend to look at any bill that limits the number of girls who may be pushed into early marriage as a step in the right direction. That said, our hope is that we can educate legislators on the dangers of those loopholes before it is too late so that we can protect not just some, but all girls from forced and early marriage. 

Let me describe those dangers of loopholes using an example of legislation that is being considered in Hawaii. The bill was originally hardline 18, but there was some pushback so they changed the bill drastically. As it stands, the bill would allow children as young as 15 to marry lawfully, so long as the other party is not more than five years older than the minor. It mandates that child protective services investigate the marriage request before it is granted, but there are no criteria or guidelines for said investigation included in the bill. 

“States will be forced to look at their own laws and acknowledge that inaction makes them vulnerable…”

What’s interesting about this bill is that the mandated investigation was introduced as a safeguard to protect girls, however, the lack of clarity and guidance pertaining to the investigation could actually place more girls at risk. This is an example, in my opinion, of how exceptions that allow child marriage to continue may very likely do more harm than good. This is what AHA Foundation tries to prevent when we educate legislators and give feedback on their proposed legislation, based on our experience and lessons learned from survivors. Since our inception almost 15 years ago, we have assisted hundreds of girls who faced forced marriage or have survived it and our advocacy is rooted in and guided by their experiences.

AHA Foundation: What’s at risk if the states that are now considering child marriage bans don’t get their respective bills passed in this legislative session?

Brooke Bumgarner: The biggest, most obvious risk is that without child marriage bans, young girls throughout the U.S. will continue to be married early in violation of their human rights. In many states, legislative sessions are coming to a close in the next few months, and often these bills do not move quickly. If no new bans are passed in legislative sessions this Spring, that means another year will pass before we have a new chance to protect the girls with legislation. In some states, like Texas, legislative sessions happen every two years! So, time is of the essence.

This is concerning, because although Unchained at Last’s newest data suggests that child marriage rates are decreasing throughout the U.S., it’s likely that there are still around 2,500 girls at risk each year. For us, we believe, given the consequences, one case of forced or child marriage is one too many. 

Furthermore, right now, only four states—Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware—have successfully passed legislation to end all marriages under the age of 18 within their states. Consequently, some of the states that are most at risk of child marriage include neighboring states like New York; bordered by not just one, but two states that have banned child marriage, New York may become a destination for child marriage if they fail to act, particularly because they do not have a residency requirement for marriage

AHA Foundation: If several of these bills pass, what message would that send to other states who have not yet adopted similar legislation?

Brooke Bumgarner: We’re on the brink of building some real momentum in the fight against child marriage. I think as more and more states adopt legislation banning marriage under the age of majority, neighboring states will be forced to look at their own laws and acknowledge that inaction makes them vulnerable to being a destination state for the purpose of child marriage. 

AHA Foundation: What can our supporters do in these states to help ensure the passing of these bills? What about in other states that aren’t discussing child marriage bans yet?

Brooke Bumgarner: For supporters living in any of the aforementioned states, we need your support now! Please reach out to your representatives. It’s incredibly important for legislators to hear from their constituents—you—who want to see this practice abolished! 

In the states that do not have pending or existing legislation, we still urge you to contact your legislators and urge them to introduce legislation to end child marriage in your state!