More than 700 million women worldwide today were married as children, and most of them are in developing countries. But there is a growing recognition that many young teens are marrying in the United States as well — and several states are now taking action to stop it.
Advocates say the young marriages run the gamut: They include teens of every ethnicity and religion, teens who are American-born and teens who are not being forced into arranged marriages.
“To be honest with you, I begged my parents to let me get married,” says Rachel Holbrook, who was 15 when she decided she wanted to marry her 21-year-old boyfriend.
Partly, she says, it was because of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing.
“I thought that was God’s will for my life,” she says. “I had been pretty much taught from birth that the highest calling of a woman was to be a wife and mother and that I needed to do that to be in God’s will.”
Holbrook says her other motivation was her belief that sex before marriage was a sin.
“You know, at that age, sex is very high on your priority list,” she says.
After threatening to never speak to her parents again, she says they finally relented and signed papers allowing her to marry at 17.
Four kids and 12 years later, she divorced. Now, she believes teens should not be allowed to do what she did.
“I know how strongly you think you know what you want at that age,” she says. “But the truth of the matter is I was a kid when I got married and I think that’s almost in every case a bad idea.”
Loopholes In Legal Marrying Age
Advocates say child marriage endangers girls’ health, undermines their education and economic opportunities, and puts them at higher risk for domestic violence as well as divorce.
According to Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Center, around 14,000 underage marriages occurred in the decade between 2000 and 2010 in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
“That’s shocking to me,” says Maryland Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary. She was also stunned by how many of those teens were 14- and 15-year-olds and how many were marrying men a decade or two older.
Like most states, Maryland sets the minimum marriage age at 18, but teens can easily get around that with a note from their parents or a doctor’s note saying they’re pregnant.
“No exceptions,” Paulin says. “Nothing sways me. I think it’s inappropriate.”
In Virginia, a bill aimed at underage marriage was just signed into law. State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel filed it after hearing that a man in his 50s was in a relationship with a 15-year-old girl. By law, that constitutes statutory rape, but when investigators started closing in on him, he married the girl, making it no longer a crime.
“People said, ‘How is it possible that in Virginia that’s allowed?’ ” Vogel says. “It’s just appalling!”
Looking Out For Vulnerable Teens
“Many states have been asleep at the wheel,” says Smoot. Any pregnant teen who shows up for a marriage license, she says, should set off alarm bells, not wedding bells. But in most states, clerks will simply rubber-stamp the marriages.
“I find it so troubling that [clerks] are not on the lookout, trained or mandated to consider whether there are serious child protection concerns,” she says.
Smoot says teens are especially vulnerable because as minors, they can’t get a restraining order or go to a domestic violence shelter. In many states, child protective services do not handle cases of spousal abuse.
Now under Virginia’s new law, 16- and 17-year-olds who want to marry have to first convince a judge they should be legally emancipated and that they deserve to be seen as an adult in the eyes of the law.
“Someone would at least be looking to see that they’re not being coerced, that the individual is mature enough to decide to marry and that the marriage is not going to endanger the minor in any way,” Vogel says. “In that case, they’d be allowed to get married. Otherwise, you’ve got to be 18.”
The bill passed over some objections, including from Delegate Richard Morris, who argued it would be better to change other laws, for example, to start letting minors get restraining orders, rather than have courts deciding who is mature enough to marry.
“Is that really what we want our parental rights to come to?” Morris said during the legislative debate. “I think that is a huge infringement on parental rights and responsibilities and that’s why I will not support this bill.”
A group advocating for children’s rights has also raised objections.
Stephanie Nilva, executive director of Day One, a nonprofit in New York that works against dating abuse and domestic violence, says she agrees that it’s a good idea to have a judge make sure that parental consent is not actually parental coercion.
But she says some young people have legitimate reasons to get married. They might have custody concerns or want to secure certain spousal benefits before one of the couple is deployed in combat. Nilva says an outright ban on marriages under 18 could put some young people at risk.
“It’s a little bit of a baby and a bath water thing,” she says. “I just believe in the autonomy and the empowerment of youth, and that young people are in the best position to determine whether they’re safe, and also whether they want to be married.”
Legal To Marry, But Not To Vote?
But many who’ve been there will be the first to tell you, kids don’t always know as much as they think.
Mary Hall was 16 when she decided marrying a guy she met five months earlier was a great idea, because her folks had just divorced and she didn’t want to live with either one of them.
“It seemed like marriage was the best way out,” she says.
By 20, Hall was divorced with two children. She thinks the minimum marriage age should be even higher than 18.
It makes no sense, she says, to tell teens they’re too young to get a tattoo or vote — but not too young to marry.