Imagine being forced to marry as a child, having your innocence, dreams, goals, aspirations, and your entire childhood taken from you. Between 2000 and 2018, this was the harsh reality for over 300,000 minors married in the United States, and most of these cases involved girls marrying adult men, some decades older. Research shows that women who are married as girls face higher drop-out rates from school, increased medical and mental health problems, up to 80% divorce rates, greater vulnerability to violence, and greater likelihood of future poverty. Children also have a harder time leaving an unwanted or abusive marriage because they don’t have the legal rights of an adult. They may not be able to get a divorce, they often can’t leave their home because they will be seen as a runaway, and domestic violence shelters may not allow minors. This issue urgently called for our attention and action.
In 2015, child marriage was legal in all 50 states. Twenty-eight states set no minimum age for marriage at all, meaning that a child of any age could be married. One in five states had dangerous pregnancy exceptions that allowed minors to marry even younger if one of the partners was pregnant. Many states allow children to marry with just parental consent – a major problem when we know that parents are most often the ones forcing a child to marry in the first place.
The national campaign to end child marriage began in 2016, when the Tahirih Justice Center championed a reform that made Virginia the first state to limit marriage to “legal adults”: age 18, or minors emancipated through a special court proceeding. The impact of this reform was immediate and significant – 87% fewer minors were married in Virginia in 2017 after the law passed.
Since this victory, a nationwide movement has emerged, leading to reforms in 34 states that either limit or end child marriage. Of those 34, 10 states have ended child marriage entirely while the other 34 have passed laws to limit child marriage and establish protections for minors who do marry. While early campaigns had to start from square one, educating advocates and legislators on the issue and establishing that child marriage even happened in the U.S., media coverage is now common and the issue of child marriage in the U.S. is more mainstream.
Lessons learned over the past seven years
The goal of the campaign to end child marriage is just that: to end child marriage by setting a minimum marriage age at 18, no exceptions, in every state. But the road to this goal is bumpy, and every campaign is different. It is critical to recognize the unique dynamics and challenges of each state, to engage and trust the local expertise of partner organizations based in that state, and to ensure that reforms prevent as much harm as possible.
When an immediate end to child marriage is not possible, advocates should consider whether passing a compromise reform now – while continuing to push for an end to child marriage later – would prevent enough harm to be worth it. Twenty-four of the reforms passed in the U.S. have been compromise measures, taking actions like creating or raising minimum marriage ages, restricting the age difference allowed between parties when one is a minor, and creating or strengthening the safeguards in judicial approval processes.
Requiring all marriage of minors to be approved by a judge, in a process that includes a suite of specific safeguards and ends with a minor becoming emancipated prior to the marriage, can have a particularly meaningful impact on preventing harm, especially in states with high numbers of child marriages. Tahirih has supported reforms like this in a number of states that had large numbers of children marrying every year, but where ending child marriage entirely was not on the table. States like Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas followed this model, and these reforms have decreased child marriages in these states by up to 96% and each year prevent hundreds of child marriages that would have happened absent reform.
New York marked a pivotal moment in the national campaign to end child marriage, when in 2021 it became the first state to end child marriage following an incremental approach. An initial campaign in 2017 had fallen short of ending child marriage, instead following Virginia’s model and limiting marriage to legal adults. Led by survivor-advocate Naila Amin, advocates continued pushing the New York legislators and, 4 years later, succeeded in ending child marriage with what was known as “Naila’s Law.”
The path to ending child marriage in New York, by passing the strongest possible legislation to limit harm while also continuing to push for a total end to child marriage, has since been successfully followed by Connecticut and attempted by a number of other states who have already limited child marriage but have not yet succeeded in ending it.
Where We Go from Here
The 10 states that have ended child marriage stand as a beacon of hope and inspiration. New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and now Michigan have closed the door on child marriage entirely by raising the minimum marriage age to 18, with no exceptions. As we celebrate the positive influence these reforms have had, we also understand that the fight is not over yet. Tahirih and our partners will continue pushing the remaining 40 states and Washington, DC for a complete end to child marriage and, when that total victory isn’t possible in the near term, ensuring that laws are made as protective as they can be in the meantime.