When you read about a bride and groom who are 15 and almost 40, or a just-married ten-year-old, most likely you assume you’re reading about some place far away on another continent, where child marriages — defined as unions where one party is younger than 18 — are deeply embedded in many local cultures.
You’d be wrong.
These cases happened right here, in the United States. And they were legally allowed.
Between 1995 and 2012, in the state of New Jersey alone, 3,499 children were married, says Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization that assists women and girls who wish to leave or avoid arranged and forced marriages. Most of the New Jersey child brides were 16 or 17, says Reiss, who gathered the statistics from state health department data on the ages of individuals getting married. But 178 of the newlyweds (the data did not identify gender or other details only the ages) were between ages 10 and 15.
She also found that 3,853 children married in New York State between 2000 and 2010.
Yet most states, including New York and New Jersey, set 18 as the legal age for marriage. So why were individuals under 18 allowed to marry?
In these two states and many others, the court can grant exceptions for someone younger if there is parental or judicial consent. In most states, if parents sign the marriage license, the spouse-to-be can be as young as 16 or 17. Moreover, in many states a judge can approve marriage at ages even younger than that. A judge might give consent if the prospective bride is pregnant or has already given birth to a child.
But even though a parent may give consent, that doesn’t mean that the child consents, points out Jeanne Smoot, a senior counsel at Tahirih Justice Center, which helps women fleeing from domestic violence.
Tahirih also compiled data that included the age and gender of those getting married in the state of Virginia. Between the years 2004 and 2013, records showed brides and grooms as young as 12. In 2013, there were 199 brides and 28 grooms age 17 and under. More specifically, nine brides (and no grooms) were 15; 58 brides and 8 grooms were age 16; and 132 brides and 20 grooms were 17.
One of the striking aspects of Tahirih’s further research, including a 2011 study on forced marriage in the U.S., is that there is no single profile of the girls and women involved. They came from families of Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and other faiths, from immigrant families from many countries and from non-immigrant communities, too. If there is a common denominator, it’s this, says Smoot: “Whenever you have a community that is closed, where it’s difficult to reach outside it, where there are great stakes to oppose community norms, that contributes to child marriage happening.”
One such example is polygamous communities and groups in the American West, which consider themselves “fundamentalist Mormons” but are not tolerated by the modern Mormon Church. The FLDS church led by jailed leader Warren Jeffs not only embraced “religious” marriages involving underage girls but awarded young girls to loyal and far older men, according to court documents and the faith’s own records.
In the case of the polygamists, the marriages generally take place within the faith. They are not state-recognized marriages.
Child marriage raises another concern, Reiss points out: the question of statutory rape. In some states, a girl might be old enough to marry with parental or judicial consent, but if she were not married, she’d still be under the age of consent for sex. For such couples, the marriage license can make the difference between sex being legal — or a crime.
Because what happens within closed communities often stays there, outsiders such as teachers and school administrators may be clueless that some of their students may face or already be in such situations. Even the girls themselves may not be fully informed at first. Reiss describes cases in which girls are told the family is going overseas for a cousin’s wedding — only to discover that it is her own wedding.
“Typically, the husband will then apply for a U.S. visa because he is now married to a U.S. citizen,” she says, “and eventually they return to the U.S.” But depending on the new husband’s attitudes, the girl’s opportunity to return to school may be jeopardized.
For these girls, reaching out can be difficult. She could face physical threats from family members or ostracization by her community. A teen-age girl “may say something like, ‘My family is arranging a marriage for me and I don’t know I feel about it,’ ” says Reiss. “Or ‘My parents want to me marry this guy and I don’t want to get married, I want to go to college.’ ”
Very rarely will they use the word “forced,” she says, not wanting to get their family in trouble. They may also be fearful of being beaten or being removed from school and taken elsewhere immediately if their family finds out they have asked for help.
Moreover, even if they do reach out, child protective services may not be able to do anything, says Casey Swegman, manager for the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Project. Such services “are set up to respond to harm already done,” she explains, “so if the child has not yet been hit or taken out of school, that can mean an investigation won’t even happen.” Imagine a 15-year-old who’s afraid of being forced into a marriage, having the courage to ask for help “and [is] then told that the system can’t help you,” she says.
“But we’re here if they ask for our help,” says Reiss of organizations like hers and the Tahirih Justice Center. And even if they just want to talk.