Wearing a bridal gown and chains around her wrists, Fraidy Reiss hopped in an Uber to get to the airport from the Michigan statehouse, where she had just participated in a protest against child marriage.
“For some reason, most Americans do not realize that these abuses are happening,” Reiss said. “Most Americans agree that forced marriage and child marriage are terrible and heartbreaking. They imagine this happening on the other side of the world, and I wish there was something we could do to show them it’s happening here, too, largely because we have outdated, archaic and dangerous laws that need to be updated.”
Nearly 300,000 minors — the vast majority of them girls — were legally married in the United States between 2000 and 2018, according to a 2021 study. Child marriage is defined as any marriage where at least one of the parties is under the age of 18. It was legal in all 50 states until 2018. Ten states have since passed bans to end the practice.
Reiss, who was forced into a marriage at 19, founded Unchained at Last, an advocacy nonprofit, in 2011 to help girls and women stuck in forced marriages. The national number of children married has decreased almost every year since 2000 but is unlikely to reach zero without legislative intervention, Reiss said. The organization raises awareness through wedding dress-clad protesters and efforts at the statehouse level to ban child marriage.
The 19th spoke to advocates and experts about the history of child marriage in the United States, its prevalence and the current debate occurring in statehouses across the country.
Child marriages create a “nightmare-ish legal trap,” for minors who don’t have a right to escape from parents planning an unwanted wedding or to leave an abusive spouse or, in some cases, to even enter a domestic violence shelter, Reiss said.
“We’re not arguing that you wake up on your 18th birthday with a newfound wisdom and maturity and the ability to choose a life partner,” Reiss said. “It’s about legal capacity: you wake up on your 18th birthday with legal rights of adulthood.”
There is often little that can be done to legally remove minors from their spouses. The youngest bride Reiss has seen was 10 years old. But helping somebody under the age of 18 run away from home or escape from an abusive situation would likely result in criminal charges for the advocates and anyone who attempted to help.
“Not only do we rarely have a positive outcome, but in many cases what ends up happening is these girls turn to suicide attempts and self-harm,” Reiss said. “We have created a legal situation where I can understand why they would think death is the only way out.”
Frustrated with these obstacles, Reiss said Unchained at Last added an advocacy arm dedicated to ending child marriage through legislation in 2015. The advocates were able to get many states to introduce bills that would prevent the marriage of minors with no exceptions — but not a single state passed any such ban for years.
Delaware and New Jersey were the first states to completely end child marriage in 2018, followed shortly by American Samoa. The U.S. Virgin Islands, Pennsylvania and Minnesota followed suit in 2020. Rhode Island and New York passed bans in 2021. Massachusetts banned the practice in 2022. Vermont passed a ban in April, and Connecticut and Michigan became the most recent states to end child marriage in June.
Advocates against child marriage have faced pushback in their efforts to end it in red, blue and purple states.
The majority of states have introduced and debated legislation related to child marriage, but most of the bills include exceptions with parental or judicial consent or have a minimum marrying age that is younger than 18. According to Unchained data, 10 states have a minimum marrying age of 17; 23 states have a minimum age of 16; two states have a minimum age of 15; and five states don’t have a minimum age specified at all.
Girls are far more likely to be wed as children than boys: 86 percent of minors wed between 2000 and 2018 were girls, Unchained found, according to data that included gender breakdowns. Both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations have called child marriage and forced marriage human rights abuses.
Elizabeth Alice Clement, a U.S. women’s historian at the University of Utah, said support for child marriage tends to be rooted in conservative or religious beliefs around premarital sexuality and pregnancy. The states with the most child marriages per capita are Nevada, Idaho, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi.