In the United States today, thousands of children under 18 have recently taken marital vows — mostly girls married to adult men, often with approval from local judges.
How is this possible? The minimum marriage age in most states is 18, but every state allows exceptions under which children under age 18 can wed.
The first common exception is for children marrying with “parental consent.” Most states allow children age 16 or 17 to marry if their parents sign the marriage license application.
Of course, one person’s “parental consent” can be another’s “parental coercion,” but state laws typically do not call for anyone to investigate whether a child is marrying willingly. Even in the case of a girl’s sobbing openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk usually has no authority to intervene. In fact, in most states there are no laws that specifically forbid forced marriage.
The second common marriage-age exception is for children marrying with judicial approval. This exception lowers the marriage age below 16 in many states, and many states do not specify a minimum age. Judges in those states can allow the marriage even of an elementary school student.
But judges would never do that, right?
Learn more about our work to end forced marriage in the United States:
- Partnership Will Press for Legal Reforms to Protect Forced Marriage Victims
- Tahirih Client Shares Her Story of Forced Marriage with NPR
- What Can We Do to End Forced Marriage in the U.S.? Read Our Policy Recommendations
- Sign Our Petition to End Forced Marriage in America
Photo credit: A city clerk’s office in New York. Spencer Platt | Getty Images