Child marriage is probably one of the last topics on Washingtonian’s minds these days. But as a D.C. resident and as someone who advocates for survivors of gender-based violence every day, this issue is something I cannot ignore. As detailed by recent reporting in the Washington Post, child marriage is far more prevalent in the United States than most people think. Over 300,000 children married across the country between 2000 and 2018, and it’s only since 2016 that states have started taking serious steps to limit or end child marriage.
D.C. has not yet joined the 31 states that have passed laws taking aim at child marriage and our laws still allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with nothing more than one parent’s signature.
This leaves children vulnerable to forced marriages especially in cases when parents are the one pressuring a child to get married because they think it is “the right thing to do,” – common dynamics include parents pressuring them to marry if they become pregnant, trying to ‘correct’ a teen’s sexual orientation by forcing them into a heterosexual marriage, or even seeking to undermine custody arrangements by getting their child married without the other parent’s knowledge.
Shockingly D.C. law doesn’t even consider the child’s own wishes – nowhere does the code require asking whether the minor consents to the marriage.
Some may think “Okay, but is this really happening in D.C.?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes – and most of these cases involved a child – as young as 16 – marrying an adult that could be decades older and, in some cases, twice their age.
The truth is, Washington, D.C. is falling behind and missing a huge opportunity to become a leader in the movement to end child marriage in the U.S.
Many in the northeast and mid-Atlantic have already stepped up in the fight to end child marriage — with Virginia becoming the first state to take action in 2016 and Delaware the first to end child marriage entirely two years later. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania have all joined Delaware and just last year Maryland passed a law placing new restrictions on marriage under 18. West Virginia passed a new law this year that is just waiting for the governor’s signature.
Progress by the District’s nearest neighbors also means that our laws not only put D.C.’s children at risk, but those of our neighbors’ as well.
We have consistently seen that when one state strengthens child marriage laws, people will seek to skirt the law by taking children to nearby jurisdictions where they can still be married. This played out here in the DMV region when Virginia passed a law in 2016; the next year Maryland saw an uptick in Virginia-resident minors marrying. With Maryland passing its own law last year, D.C. could become the regional destination for child marriage.
And we know that child marriage, whether it is forced or not, has disastrous, lifelong consequences for American girls. Teenage girls face intimate partner violence at much higher rates than adults. Girls who marry are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school, are more likely to live in poverty, and have worse lifelong health outcomes.
The marriages themselves don’t often succeed either, with divorce rates up to 80 percent. And the children in these marriages don’t have the legal rights of an adult, making it much more difficult to seek services or leave a marriage if they do face abuse.
Washington D.C has the power to influence change and progress. The Council and Mayor must implement legislation that ensures children cannot be married off through loopholes and exploited under the guise of marriage. We can end child marriage in the nation’s capital by setting the minimum marriage age at 18 – without exceptions. It’s time for our city to update our antiquated marriage laws and put the wellbeing of our children first.