Teen Vogue: Child Marriage in the U.S., Explained by a Former Child Bride

View the story on TeenVogue.com.

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.

Trevicia Williams says she was 14 years old when her mother forced her to marry a 26-year-old man. Earlier this year, she wrote about the experience as part of her testimony to the Texas Senate on the dangers of child marriage. It was 1983, and Texas marriage laws allowed a minor as young as 14 to marry with parental consent. Trevicia tells Teen Vogue that her mother met the man she married — who is now a registered sex offender — through their Pentecostal church. She told the Texas Senate that her mother arranged the marriage while Trevicia was at school, where she excelled. According to her written testimony, her mom picked her up from school one day, but instead of going home, she drove her to the court, where Trevicia was married.

“I vividly recall being a 14-year-old 9th grader with my hands filled with textbooks as I exited the high school I attended,” Trevicia, now 47, wrote in the testimony. “Instead of riding the bus home, as I usually did, my mother was there to pick me up for the marriage that she and the head of the church she attended had arranged.”

In the United States today, child marriage occurs in every state, and it’s legal, thanks to exceptions built into marriage laws that allow minors to wed under certain conditions — like having your mom’s permission. Early marriage can occur by force, when parents are religious and see marriage as a moral duty; other parents see marriage as the proper course of action when an unwanted pregnancy occurs. Others use marriage to cover up rape.

Not every instance of child marriage is forced, and not all child marriages involve parents. Some underage people choose to marry because they’ve enlisted in the military, or they’re emancipated from their parents and in love. Each case of child marriage is unique, and so are state laws that allow the practice to continue in the United States today, adding up to at least 207,468 child marriages between 2000 and 2015, according to PBS’s Frontline. Regardless of the reason, state data show the greatest impact has been felt among teenage girls.

In Texas, where Trevicia was married, laws about child marriage went unchanged for more than a decade and have only recently been updated to limit how many minors are marrying in the state.

On June 15, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed new legislation that banned any marriage by people under the age of 16, allowing only emancipated minors to marry at 16 or 17. It’s a huge development for Texas, which has historically married the most minors of any state, with (34,793) minors married between 2000 and 2010, according to figures from Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that helps those in forced marriages. Back in 1983, a law like this could have altered the course of Trevicia’s life.

Instead, Trevicia told the court, after her marriage was made official by a judge, abuse started within the first month. “Within the first 30 days of the marriage, my now ex-husband hit me,” Trevicia’s statement to the Texas Senate continues. “I asked my mother if I could return home and she told me no. I couldn’t make the decisions that were required to escape from the marriage. Therefore, I had to wait until I was legally able to file for a divorce to free myself from the marriage.” It ended up taking Trevicia three years to get a divorce at 17.

The bright spot in this two-year marriage was the birth of her daughter, Trevicia tells Teen Vogue. She knew she had to leave and started doing research, which led her to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. She called and explained her situation, and they gave her a list of organizations that could help. It was easier for Trevicia to secure her divorce than it is for some young women: By the time she was 17, her husband was in prison — this time for sexually assaulting another woman. Her marriage ended, and Trevicia was on her own to figure out what came next as a single mother with a child she was motivated to raise right.

“I was impacted so greatly by that relationship [with my mom],” Trevicia tells Teen Vogue.

Trevicia worked her way through college as a corrections officer, on an interdisciplinary-studies program, and eventually earned a master’s in behavioral sciences and psychology and a doctorate in psychology. Today she’s an entrepreneur who coaches mothers and daughters through workshops and is a published expert on mother-daughter relationships. She recently published a book, I Love You, BUT, I Can’t UnderSTAND You Right Now, and hopes her work will prevent parents from seeing the arrangement of a forced marriage as a solution to a strained relationship.

Her latest achievement is as an activist. It was Trevicia’s testimony that helped convince Texas lawmakers to update the state’s marriage laws and make it harder for parents to force minors to marry. Once the Texas bill was passed, she also sent a letter to Governor Abbott asking him to sign the legislation into law. After receiving her letter, Abbott signed the bill. (A request for comment from Governor Abbott’s office from Teen Vogue was not answered.) Though Trevicia believes the minimum age to marry should be 18, she views any progress as positive. “I think I’m the first child bride survivor to have that kind of impact on laws,” Trevicia says. By speaking out, she hopes to show others there’s a way out. She knows she’s not alone, even though a forced marriage can often feel that way.

Recently, Unchained at Last joined with the Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that fights against child marriage, to help introduce legislative initiatives in various states. Since 2016, at least 10 states have introduced legislation that aims to eliminate or curb marriage for those under 18. Three of those — ConnecticutTexas, and New York — ultimately passed the legislation. And though in some of the remaining seven states, legislative sessions closed without passage, many bills are poised for reintroduction, and additional states are expected to introduce reform bills as well. This followed a precedent set by Virginia, where, until 2016, a girl could marry at 13 or younger if she were pregnant and her parents approved. That legislation was spearheaded by the Tahirih Justice Center, too.

The health and social risks of a young person marrying early are vast. According to a 2011 study from the journal Pediatrics, minors who marry are more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder than adults who marry. Young girls are also more likely to face abuse from partners: According to the Tahirih Justice Center, based on data pulled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls between 16 and 19 experience the highest rates of domestic violence, and this age group is the one that most marriage laws fail to address. Women under the age of 19 are 50% more likely to drop out of school, and, according to a 2010 study, are 31% more likely to live in poverty.

“It’s devastating how trapped they become,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, tells Teen Vogue. “I definitely would say that legislators do not seem to get it.”

Former child bride Rachel Holbrook shared her story with NPR to offer a cautionary tale, saying that even though she wanted to marry at 15, and did so at 17, she regretted it because, as she said, “I know how strongly you think you know what you want at that age. 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.”

States like New York are changing long-standing statutes, however. On June 20 of this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to update the minimum age at which minors can marry with judicial and parental consent, from 14 to 17 years old — the first time the statute changed since 1929. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, this statute affected 3,850 minors married in New York, and the state’s newest legislation seeks to reduce those numbers by introducing more limitations. Some advocates argue that even with the age minimum at 17, the law still puts minors at risk.

“In New York, the bill still allows 17-year-olds to marry with judicial approval, and unfortunately, most of the children who marry in the United States are 17,” Reiss tells Teen Vogue. “The bill…carves out an exception for the group of children who are at the highest risk of being forced into a marriage.”

It’s why Reiss continues to fight back against what she says are “watered down” laws. Through Unchained at Last, she works to support and inspire concerned citizens and former child brides to keep speaking out.

Trevicia said her recent success in changing Texas marriage laws only strengthened her will to keep pushing for change. Her stance is firm and clear: “There is no really good reason for child marriage.”

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 fmi@tahirih.org. Visit preventforcedmarriage.org and unchainedatlast.org to find out more.*