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Bride & groom handcuffed together, representing the harms of forced and child marriage.

From teddy bears to heart shaped candies to marriage proposals, February is known as a month dedicated to love and the celebration of romance.

February is also National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. It is a time to reflect, advocate, and educate young people about the importance of healthy relationships and stopping abuse before it starts. According to Love Is Respect, a program focused on supporting healthy relationships for adolescents operated by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, roughly 1 in 3 teens in the United States are affected by a form of dating violence, whether that is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse while in a relationship.

Yet, people often overlook one form of teen “dating” violence, and it is rarely ever addressed during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: forced and child marriage.

Forced marriage is a serious form of abuse that impacts teens and children within the United States. A forced marriage is one that takes place without the full and free consent of one or both parties and usually involves elements of force, fraud, or coercion. Forced marriage also often occurs hand in hand with other types of abuse impacting young people, including child abuse, rape and sexual assault, domestic and family violence, and stalking.

Child marriage is still very prevalent in the United States, with nearly 300,000 minors, under age 18, legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Even when the marriage is not forced, child marriage often has devastating, lifelong impacts and those most at risk face confounding forms of harm. Children married before age 18 face a greater vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence, increased medical and mental health problems over their lifespan, increased high school drop-out rates, an increased risk of future poverty, and up to 80% divorce rates. Thousands of children and teens across the United States are still at risk of facing this type of harm. Only 10 states completely ban child marriage, meaning an individual must be 18 years old to obtain a marriage license.

Advocates use February and the heightened awareness of teen dating violence as a platform to educate young people on the importance of loving yourself, exploring dating preferences, and creating boundaries in relationships. While it is amazing to see young folks take back their agency and show others how they want to be loved, not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to explore the differences between a healthy and unhealthy relationship. Some forced marriage survivors name that the mere perceived thought of dating can escalate violence within the home or make families move forward with marriage plans.

It’s also important to understand the realities of being married while underage, both for children at risk of a forced marriage and consenting minors wanting to marry. Children and teens often face unique obstacles when they try to resist or escape forced marriages. State laws often work against children and teens attempting to leave an unsafe living environment. There are limits to their confidentiality and ability to seek out legal representation or social service programs on their own. Often, children and teens who are married cannot legally sign a contract with an attorney to obtain a divorce or enter a domestic violence shelter without triggering mandated reporting requirements (which often loops in those who are causing harm to the minor like their parents or adult spouse).

When we discuss teen dating violence, we must also include child marriage in those conversations. Teens need to know their rights around marriage and that they have the right to choose the person they marry, when they want to marry, or even if marriage is right for them. Advocates should equip teens with the tools and knowledge to identify red flags and ways to seek help.

The Forced Marriage Initiative at the Tahirih Justice Center is a leader in the movement to end child marriage in the United States. Outside of our policy work, the Forced Marriage Initiative is educating young people about their rights, options, and supporting them throughout their journey to safety. If you or someone you know is facing a forced marriage, contact the Forced Marriage Initiative at [email protected] or 571-282-6199.