Wedlocked is a Teen Vogue series about child marriage in the United States that examines the history of the practice and its modern reality, as all 50 states have laws with provisions that that allow people under 18 to marry.
It’s likely that some Americans assume child marriage happens only in developing nations, where one in three girls are married before 18. But it happens around the world, among people of different faiths, and in secular homes. It happens across the United States, where religion can play a unique role in preserving the practice of child marriage — it’s at once a reason some minors are forced to marry early, and also why some lawmakers insist the law must not be changed to end the coercion.
In May, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have ended legal child marriage in his state, in part because he said that he believed it would violate religious customs. “I agree that protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State,” he said. In New Jersey, the law remains that minors can marry with parental consent at 16, and anyone younger can marry with consent of both parents and a judge’s approval.
Between 2000 and 2015, there were at least 207,468 marriages involving minors in the United States, according to figures from PBS’s Frontline. Marriage involving minors — which most often involves young girls and older men — doesn’t always occur due to strict interpretations of religious custom. Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy with the national organization Tahirih Justice Center, said the non-profit has examined more than 500 child and adult forced marriage cases in the U.S., and she tells Teen Vogue that no major religion “actually promotes child marriage.”
A National Marriage Survey conducted by Tahirih in 2011 recorded responses from girls involved in child marriages from Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, and other faiths. Advocacy organization Unchained At Last, which helps victims of forced marriage, has suggested that the practice is pervasive across faiths. Perhaps that’s why lawmakers continue to bow to certain traditions.
Amanda Norejko is Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project Director with Sanctuary for Families, a legal organization that works with Tahirih and provides legal counsel and advocacy for diverse communities dealing with gender violence in New York, and she agrees with Smoot’s assessment. “We’ve actually seen this phenomenon across a number of different religions,” she tells Teen Vogue. “We’ve worked with Orthodox Jewish clients, with Christian clients, clients from a lot of different religious backgrounds for whom their communities and their families have a tradition of early marriage.”
“It isn’t exclusive to the Muslim population,” she says, negating the notion that child marriage is only an issue among those who practice Islam.
Norejko worked on a coalition that recently revised the language used for New York’s updated marriage law, raising the minimum age to marry to 17 with written judicial and parental consent. “New York has a very diverse population. We have some communities where child marriage is common, and we were really trying to make sure that we addressed their needs,” she says. Their goal was to “be culturally competent and respectful of different cultures while at the same time, not using those cultures as an excuse to allow people to be victimized, particularly minors.”
In New Jersey, the bill struck down by Christie would set 18 as the minimum age to marry in the state, with no exceptions. “It was a really strong bill that would’ve ended all marriage before 18,” Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Executive Director of Unchained At Last, tells Teen Vogue. Her organization advocates on behalf of victims of forced marriage, and she was directly involved in introducing the legislation in New Jersey, even providing testimony that influenced the judicial committee that ultimately helped the bill advance through the New Jersey Senate. Her bill passed both houses, and she says it had the support of religious groups in the state. “It would’ve made New Jersey the first state to do so,” she says.
So when Christie vetoed the bill, saying its protections created a “severe bar,” Reiss challenged the governor to name the religious groups whose customs the bill violated. She did not receive a response. As of this writing, a request by Teen Vogue for comment from Christie’s office was also unreturned.
According to Smoot, it’s not necessarily religious institutions that condone or promote child marriage, but parents working to safeguard a moral standard. “In some cases, we’ve seen families use religious guilt-tripping to pressure a girl to marry – for example, threats that God will condemn them or that the congregation or community will shun them if they do not marry,” she says.
“While marriage before a certain age is not a religious requirement, some religious sects do promote marrying earlier rather than later, in order to pre-empt and prevent sexual relations outside of marriage,” she explains. This may be true in many faiths, including Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities.
Unchained At Last, Sanctuary for Families, and Tahirih Justice Center work together to provide services to victims of forced marriages in all communities. They also partner to change laws, and Reiss plans to continue pushing for stricter laws in her home state of New Jersey despite the recent defeat. She says the bill’s sponsors have already promised to reintroduce it in January. “Even if Governor Christie found some weird religious cult somewhere that insists on marrying off children when they’re 12 and sacrificing virgins every Wednesday, even if he found that religion, this bill still is Constitutional,” Reiss says. “And Governor Christie had absolutely no reason to veto it.”
If you are facing or fleeing a forced marriage or know someone who is, contact the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative to get help at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit preventforcedmarriage.org to find out more.