The data is clear. Child marriage is a problem right here in the United States.
Tahirih Justice Center, in partnership with Hogan Lovells, recently analyzed marriage data from select states. What we found out about child marriage is disturbing:
IN VIRGINIA FROM 2004-2013:
— Nearly 4,500 children were married.
— Over 200 children married at age 15 or younger.
— About 90% of the underage spouses are girls; and among the youngest spouses (15 or younger), there are 13 times more underage brides than grooms.
— Children as young as 13 (and pregnant) were granted marriage licenses.
— Nearly 90% of these marriages were to an adult spouse, and between 30-40% of those adults were 21 or older, and sometimes decades older.
These figures shocked us, too:
— 13: Number of children under age 15 married to spouses more than 20 years older
— 25: Number of 15-year-olds married to spouses more than 10 years older
— 47: Number of 16-year-olds married to spouses more than 14 years older
Source: Virginia Department of Health
IN MARYLAND SINCE 2000:
— Over 3,000 children were married.
— Nearly 150 children age 15 or younger were married.
— About 85% of the underage spouses were girls.
These cases are especially alarming:
— In 2012, a 16 year-old-girl married a 35-39-year-old man, and, in 2005, a 16-year-old girl married a 40-44 year old man
— In 2009, a girl under age 15 married a 27-year-old man
— In 2007, a 17 year-old-girl married a 45-49-year-old man
IN TEXAS FROM 2000-2014:
Based on data that Tahirih obtained and analyzed from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40,000 children under age 18 were married.
Texas has some of the highest numbers of child marriages in the nation. A 2016 investigative report by The Houston Chronicle appears to have relied on different data that undercounted the problem, but compellingly tells the story of A Child Bride in Texas – the reporter’s own mother’s forced marriage at age 14.
For more info about Texas’s statistics and the laws that need to change to protect children, please see Tahirih’s backgrounder.
How could this happen? Current laws are failing to protect vulnerable children and teens.
A pregnant 13-year-old should have triggered alarm bells and an investigation by social services, not a marriage license. She would have been a statutory rape victim — below the age at which capacity to consent to sexual relations is even legally recognized.
The issue isn’t isolated to Virginia, Maryland, or Texas. Most states set 18 as the minimum age of legal consent to marry, but this requirement can often be easily set aside through exceptions based on parental or judicial consent, and/or pregnancy.
Some of you may have read the NPR story about the issue, or the heartbreaking story in the Houston Chronicle about a 14-year-old who was forced to marry a 21-year-old. Maybe you saw The New York Times op-ed by a partner non-profit, Unchained at Last, citing nearly 3,500 children married in New Jersey between 1995-2012, nearly 200 of them children 15 or younger. In New York, nearly 4,000 children were married from 2000-2010.
We realize that not every “child marriage” is a “forced marriage.” But Tahirih’s 2011 survey into forced marriage in the United States identified as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage encountered by service-providers over a two-year-period, many involving girls under age 18.
Almost every day, Tahirih hears from forced marriage victims from around the United States reaching out to us for help. Their lives are often in danger. They may be threatened with violence, ostracism, economic deprivation, and harm to loved ones (for example, that a sibling will be forced to marry if they don’t comply). Their legal rights as children are limited and minimum age laws in their states are impotent to protect them when their parents are complicit.
When we think about child marriage, we usually think about it happening in other countries. But, it is happening here, and Tahirih’s survey and experiences confirm it affects immigrant and non-immigrant families alike, of diverse socio-cultural and religious backgrounds. And, the consequences are just as damaging for girls in America as in other countries.
That’s why Tahirih is leading a movement in the United States to end forced and child marriage.
The United States needs to see that it is not only critical to solutions to child marriage, but also an integral part of the problem. Tahirih is pressing for reforms to the legal age to marry in the United States. We urge that the legal age be set at 18 (or above, if the age of majority is higher) in all states, with an exception only for emancipated minors who are empowered to advocate for themselves.
Historic, Tahirih-drafted legislation to protect children in Virginia was signed into law in March and becomes effective July 1, 2016. Similar reform legislation has been introduced in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. These are the first steps to rolling out similar bills around the country. Tahirih is hard at work, in keeping with our core principles, developing a broad base of bi-partisan champions and a wide range of supporting organizations.
Your support has brought us this far, and it’s essential as we move forward. Please sign up to receive our e-news, and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook for breaking updates in the pivotal weeks and months ahead.