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America Has a Child Bride Problem

A conversation with an expert on why Zimbabwe has banned child marriage but we haven’t

It’s difficult to surprise anyone anymore, but let’s give it a shot: Child marriage laws are more lax in the U.S. than in El Salvador, Gambia, Chad, Honduras, Guatemala, Malawi and Zimbabwe, all of which have recently banned marrying minors.

Via the BBC

In Afghanistan, the minimum marrying age is 15 with parental consent, and 16 without it. In Florida, a pregnant girl of any age can tie the knot — and 16,000 did just that between 2011 and 2015.

More troubling: Forty thousand child marriages occurred in Texas between 2000 to 2014, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. Unchained at Last, whose mission is to ban child marriage in the U.S., estimates that as many as 250,000 child marriages occurred nationwide between 2000 and 2010, in some states at a rate of one per day.

How is this possible, you might wonder, if the minimum marriage age in most states is 18?

Via the BBC

The answer is easy: Every state allows exceptions to this rule — the most common being “parental consent” — that can drop the true minimum marriage age much lower. In fact, half of U.S. states don’t set any bottom line age “floor” whatsoever, meaning that as long as exceptions are met, a child of any age could be married.

It’s worth pointing out then that women who marry before the age of 19 are:

To help make sense of all this, I recently reached out to Nicholas L. Syrett. A professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas and author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, Syrett was originally drawn to the subject of child brides because it demonstrated that marriage can legitimize things that society otherwise condemns — e.g., having sex with children.

Is this a new phenomenon?
No. Child marriage has always been a part of the American story. It began in the Colonial American era, when the minimum permissible age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys, because that was the law in England. For example, the governor of North Carolina married a 15-year-old in 1762.

Why the age difference between genders?
The argument is that girls hit puberty — i.e., biological adulthood — earlier than boys. So they’re able to marry earlier than boys. As one 1600s marriage treatise put it, women’s bodies are “more tender and moister than the male.”

When did Americans begin to increase the marriage age?
By the 1850s, Americans started to re-evaluate childhood and become more concerned with protecting it — especially through mandatory elementary schooling and banning children from workplaces. Concerns over child marriage is in part about rethinking childhood itself.

How do American laws about child marriage contradict our foreign policy?
Christian missionaries and progressive era reformers have always framed the U.S. as more civilized or better than other countries. When they campaigned against child marriage elsewhere, though, they were thinking about very, very young marriage — like 7 or 8 years old. They were far more open to adolescents marrying, especially if the girl was pregnant. Most Americans believe we don’t have a problem with child marriage, largely because we frame it as involving very young children. So we can say, “Child marriage should be banned everywhere!” Even though it’s legal to marry someone below the age of 18 in every state in America.

That’s what I was most surprised by. While most states have laws that set the minimum age of marriage at 18, they allow for exceptions to the rule and 25 states have no age “floor,” as long as exceptions are met. On that note, what are the most common exceptions?
If you’re going to marry below the age of 18, you need to have parental consent, or in some states, judicial consent from a family court judge. In other states, if a girl is pregnant and wishes to marry the father, she’s permitted to do so. Parents would often rather their pregnant daughter be married to the father of the child. So this is seen as a “solution” to the problem — as seen in a recent Frontline report about a father who took his daughter to Missouri to marry her rapist.

Is that a common scenario?
It’s difficult to know. County clerks rarely asks, “Are your parents coercing you?” The assumption is you’re marrying someone because you love them.

So we’re relying on the righteousness of the clerk?
Kind of. There was a rogue clerk in Delaware named Kenneth W. Boulden Jr. who believed a girl was being coerced both by the man and her parents. “I’ll never forget the look on her face,” he said. “Her mother was giving her permission to be married to a 27-year-old male.” So he questioned the law and worked to have it changed.

What states are next to fall?
Virginia passed an outright ban on child marriage in 2016. New Jersey will probably be next given the newly elected Democratic governor. When minimum marriage ages have increased, it typically first occurs in the Midwest and Northeast states. The South has resisted the longest because there’s a much longer history of minors marrying there, and they’re far more conservative about issues regarding sex.

What’s the most common argument opposing child-marriage laws?
Some have advanced a Libertarian argument — that we should respect people’s ability to make intelligent decisions. The other argument is about sex. Conservative thinkers want children to be born legitimately. So if the parents get married, the child won’t be a bastard. Also, if marriage isn’t an option for a 15-year-old girl, some fear she might be more likely to terminate the pregnancy. Or as one representative in New Hampshire put it, “We should not, as a society, make it more difficult to get married than to have an abortion.”

Lastly, many people really believe that marriage can fix problems. So even with a young girl who finds herself pregnant with a man 10 years her senior, there’s a belief that, “If we can just get them married, then everything will be fine.”