Teen Vogue: A New Study on Child Marriage Is Changing the Conversation

View story on TeenVogue.com.

It’s familiar, that well-worn image of the overprotective dad who menacingly threatens his daughter’s date. It has long served as a tired, but congenial, premise, relied on for an easy laugh as casual sitcom fodder or invoked to create a family in-joke — just like that recent viral prom photo of a daughter, a date, a dad, and a handgun. Perhaps the most persistent cliché within this genre of jokes, which casts Dad as the armed security in his daughter’s love life, is the notion of a “shotgun wedding.”

Despite the cartoonish connotations of the term, the image of the shotgun wedding can become a more serious tool in the hands of some lawmakers who think child marriage is an acceptable alternative to abortion for unwed teen mothers. These lawmakers wield the “shotgun wedding” image in attempts to counter arguments against early marriage, a practice that’s been proved to lead many young people to suffering. But what exactly are the hard realities child marriage can create that these lawmakers who argue in support of it so often ignore?

In the United States, it’s still unclear exactly how many child marriages occur each year, precisely how young some children are when they’re wed, or whether they have a choice in their marriages. That’s a problem, as we now know early marriage can carry grave consequences. Recent studies have found that minors who marry are more likely to live in poverty, drop out of school, experience serious complications during pregnancy, develop psychiatric disorders, and become victims of domestic violence, the highest rates of which impact girls between the ages of 16 and 19.

A recently published study seeks to paint a more complete picture of child marriage in the U.S. by drawing from a different source, the American Community Survey (ACS), a Census Bureau program that releases information similar to the Census on an annual basis. It provided a sample of 616,107 teens between the ages of 15–17 in every state from 2010 to 2014, including responses from unmarried and married teens, capturing data on both licensed and unlicensed child marriages. This gave researchers access to consistent sets of data on child marriage that crossed every state and went beyond typical marriage license data. Among the study’s most clear-cut findings: Child marriage doesn’t last.

“These marriages are not leading, to the best of our knowledge, to long-term marriages where they’re living together,” Jody Heymann told Teen Vogue. “So, I think that’s really important for people who believe that child marriage when there’s a pregnancy is actually forming a family and a long-term marriage. It’s not. It’s really not the solution.”

Heymann serves as the dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. In this role, she assisted Alissa Koski, a postdoctoral scholar, in investigating the prevalence of child marriage in the U.S. Together, they published “Child Marriage in the United States: How Common Is the Practice, And Which Children Are at Greatest Risk?” a new study that goes further than any other to show just how prevalent child marriage is in the U.S.

The picture their study paints is one of unsatisfying marriages that can end early or otherwise often continue without much contact between the married couple. Nationwide, Koski and Heymann found that 6.2 in every 1,000 teens between 15 and 17 surveyed said they have been married. In states like West Virginia, Hawaii, and North Dakota, it climbs as high as 10 in every 1,000. Of the teens who said they were married, 80% said they did not live with their spouses; most still lived at home with their parents. The study confirmed existing research to show that, nationally, girls between 15 and 17 surveyed were married more often than boys.

The new research also showed that in the time before the married teen turns 18, more than a quarter of those marriages end; most couples in these marriages separated (17%), some divorced (6%), and some were widowed (4%). This echoes other studies that suggest child marriages end much more frequently than Koski and Heymann’s study found, including a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that showed in 2010 there were 500,000 teens wed, divorced, separated, or widowed, and of the marriages entered into before 18, divorce was the outcome for 70% of married teens.

Koski and Heymann’s study additionally tested for prevalence of child marriage in different races/ethnicities, but to further investigate the “social forces” driving child marriage, the study concludes that there’s a need for more research. Koski has already begun her next phase with colleagues at the University of Southern California, conducting interviews with children who have been married before the age of 18 to discover what leads them to marry.

These interviews could add more detail to the national conversation and could help combat broad speculations that state lawmakers can sometimes make to explain why someone younger than 18 should marry (like this shining example from former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie). An effort like this one could help clearly illuminate why the problematic cases, where child marriage is shown to harm those involved, should become the bigger concern for lawmakers than the false security of child marriage as a means to deal with an unwanted pregnancy or to protect religious customs. Currently, there are some lawmakers who continue to make that case.

“I cannot support banning marriage, period,” Delaware state Representative Joe Miró (R–Pike Creek Valley) said after casting the only dissenting vote against HB 337, which could otherwise lead the state to become the first in the country to outright ban child marriage. Miró’s objections? The lawmaker said child marriage should be accessible for teenage lovebirds who want to wed. He also said banning child marriage could lead more teens to get abortions.

Another Republican in a nearby state agreed with him. In New Hampshire last year, state Representative David Bates (R-Windham) made the same case when he successfully argued against a similar ban in his state, saying, “There was a time in our society when people believed that . . . when there’s an unplanned pregnancy, rather than that child be born out of wedlock, the best thing would be that they would be raised with the natural mother and father, and so marriages were encouraged. Obviously, 13 is the extreme, but that’s the principle behind it.”

Although Koski and Heymann’s new study calls for federal action to provide public resources to prevent child marriage, both researchers agreed there’s potential for far-reaching impact within recent state actions, especially if more data can persuade lawmakers that all the negative outcomes researchers connect to child marriages necessitate a revision of laws to protect more kids.

“Many of our important social policies in the United States have begun at the state level,” Heymann said. “So states taking action to address important health needs, important population needs, in this case, the needs of children and youth, is both critically important and very likely, in the long run, to contribute to other states having the courage to take action and, eventually, national action.”

Along with Delaware, New Jersey could become the first state to outlaw child marriage outright. A recent vote in the state Senate passed a bill that could place an absolute ban on marriage under the age of 18. Between 1995 and 2012, a ban like that would’ve stopped 3,500 documented cases of child marriage, predominantly minors aged 16 and 17. That’s the age range associated with teens whose heightened risk for abuse makes them more likely to become pregnant, at a time in life when complications during pregnancy are more common.

“I think it has been underrecognized, the extent of the problem in the United States, and we would hope that this study and the studies of different groups in this area are a wake-up call that we need to be measuring what’s going on and taking active steps to reduce child marriage,” Heymann said.