Teen Vogue: Child Marriage in the United States, Explained

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.

“I am proud to sign this legislation that puts an end to child marriage in New York once and for all,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement issued on June 20, after signing a bill that raises his state’s minimum age for marriage from 14 to 18. When his pen hit the paper, it effectively crossed out a section of New York’s marriage laws that had remained unchanged for approximately 88 years.

On that day, New York joined a growing group of states taking action to help prevent child marriage. In each state, there are legal exceptions that allow people younger than 18 to marry.

In Virginia, until last year, laws made exceptions for girls as young as 13 to marry if they were pregnant and had parental consent. The state’s new law allows emancipated 16- and 17-year-olds to legally wed. In Texas, where laws also recently changed, 16- and 17-year-olds previously were allowed to marry with just parental consent. Now, they too must be emancipated before they can wed. The updated marriage laws in New York follow suit to include an exception that extends to 17-year-olds who receive judicial and parental approval. The court’s permission to marry automatically emancipates the minor. This June, Connecticut passed legislation to establish a lower floor for the first time, setting 16 as the minimum age that young people can marry in the state. Unlike legislation in other states, Connecticut’s law does not involve legal emancipation.

Between 2000 and 2010, these states combined allowed more than 46,000 people under the age of 18, mostly girls, to marry. Reporting on child marriage is inconsistent from state to state, but a report by PBS’s Frontline revealed at least 207,468 cases that occurred in the U.S. from 2000 to 2015.

While most states allow marriage without parental consent for those 18 and older, (in Nebraska, it’s 19; in Mississippi, 21), every state includes exceptions that allow those under 18 to marry sooner. As of October 2017, in half of the states, these exceptions will serve to lower the legal age of marriage to anywhere from 13 to 17. In the other half, if certain conditions are met, a child of any age can be married.

Rules vary by state. In nine states — Oklahoma, Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida — exceptions exist to allow minors who are pregnant to marry, and in some of the states with a pregnancy exception, there is also no minimum age for marriage. In states like California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, there is no minimum age if the court decides the marriage is appropriate.

According to Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that works against child marriage, in almost all states where minors as young as age 15 (or below) could be permitted to marry, a judge must make that decision — but the marriage-license data that’s been obtained by advocates calls into sharp question judges’ decision-making and certainly gives no reassurances that requiring judicial approval, on its own, is any real safeguard for vulnerable children. In nine states and Washington, D.C., clerks can approve all marriages for minors; a judge does not need to be consulted.

In many states, child marriage is contingent on parental consent, Smoot tells Teen Vogue, noting that “parental consent may sometimes mean parental coercion.” While parental consent laws may be viewed by some as a safeguard, they can be used to perpetrate abuse. Parents can intimidate children into marriage through relentless pressure and psychological abuse, threats of physical abuse, or economic threats. Consent rules generally have more to do with parental control than with safeguarding children’s welfare, according to Smoot, whose organization helped write the latest legislation in Virginia and Texas and helped advise the drafting in New York.

For as long as there has been a United States, there have been people under 18 years old getting married. Today, adulthood is legally defined by each state’s “age of majority,” and that means that for most, but not all, legal adulthood happens at 18.

Minors access adult privileges gradually, like the ability to marry, drive a car, enlist in the military, register to vote, gamble, and drink. Age of consent laws in the English colonies were based directly on English common law, which meant lawmakers here determined cases by consulting legal precedents set in England. Those laws informed the U.S. age of consent for sex, which initially ranged from 10 to 12 in the colonies and around the formation of the country and did not apply to boys. Common law marriage ages were, generally, 12 for girls and 14 for boys, though some states and colonies set higher limits. According to Nicholas L. Syrett, author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, agreed-upon ages of consent also guided judges in their decisions regarding what age was appropriate for child marriages, but only after a marriage had already occurred. “It was very easy to marry illegally. Judges got involved only if someone (usually a parent) protested the marriage,” he tells Teen Vogue. Marriage laws evolved by state, with each setting individual statutes, though many states copied each other. Age discrepancies between the genders with regard to age of consent for marriage existed in nearly every state.

Around the middle of the 19th century, though it was still fairly common, more people began to view child marriage negatively. A Massachusetts law from 1852 made it a crime to take a girl from her father’s home and marry her without his permission, in part because the legislature believed that early marriage robbed families of the contributions children were expected to make to their households until a certain age — which legally meant until age 21, according to Syrett.

Many children, mostly girls, were forced into marriages by their parents because they’d either had sex or gotten pregnant, and both were viewed as criminal by social reformers pushing purity campaigns at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, if a girl with a reputation chose marriage, she was sometimes choosing between that, a reformatory, or incarceration. However some did become unwed mothers. If they were jailed, they were potentially subject to forced sterilization. Marriage was also seen by many as the answer to rape, both statutory and forced. Syrett notes that in 30% of statutory rape cases between 1896 and 1926 in New York City examined by the historian Stephen Robertson in his book Crimes Against Children, parents of victims saw marriage as their daughters’ way out of a scandal. If the man refused marriage, the parents would sometimes offer money. In some of these cases, parents saw themselves as the victims, and they also saw marriage as a way to save their daughters, Syrett says.

In 1910, more than 11% of girls in the U.S. ages 15 to 19 were teenage brides, according to Syrett. These percentages slightly decreased by the 1930s, but the decline may have had more to do with money than morals: During the Great Depression, getting married just cost too much money.

During the baby boom between the ’40s and ’60s, the number of child marriages in the U.S. increased, along with the number of children born. It was also when states increasingly required proof of age to apply for marriage. This led to marriage migrations, with couples going elsewhere to skirt local marriage laws, a practice that dwindled by the 1970s, as most states by then required couples to show their birth certificates. (Before then, they were asked, “Do you swear?” Or they lied on applications or forged parental consent.)

Today, the U.S. census pulls data on marriages for those 15 and over, though no central, nationalized data set exists for those who marry in the U.S and are under the age of 18, which is why organizations like Tahirih Justice Center and Unchained at Last have extracted exact figures through state-by-state analysis.

In 2015, Tahirih compiled select state data to show that more than 3,000 children were married in Maryland since 2000 and 4,500 in Virginia from 2004 to 2013. (In Maryland, 85% of those underage spouses were girls. In Virginia, it was 90%.) Unchained at Last collected marriage-license data from 38 states between 2000 and 2010, finding that more than 167,000 children married in the U.S. during that time period. The majority of these marriages were between children and much older adults. Some of the children were as young as 12 years old.

“The U.S. State Department considers marriage before 18 a human rights abuse, and this is a human rights abuse that we know overwhelmingly affects girls, not boys,” Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, an anti-child marriage organization, tells Teen Vogue. “Almost all the children who marry are girls, and so legislators are looking at this through, unfortunately, a very sexist lens, and it’s that attitude toward girls that comes across very clearly when we have legislators who refuse to end child marriage.”

According to Tahirih, which collected data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40,000 children under 18 married between 2000 and 2014. That’s on average 2,857 kids a year, or nearly eight kids a day. Yet laws in Texas went unchallenged by elected officials until very recently. Legislation passed on June 15 raising the state’s minimum marriageable age from 16 to 18 (though still with an emancipation exception). That made Texas one of only three states (also New York and Virginia) with laws that limit marriage to legal adults.

As partners and individual organizations, Tahirih and Unchained at Last have helped girls and women in the U.S. get out of forced marriages, with Unchained, specifically, helping several hundred. When asked how they locate child brides in need of help, Reiss responds, “Well, we don’t find them. They find us.” Usually it’s by word of mouth or a Google search.

Unchained at Last has recently gotten involved in changing the laws they’ve grown accustomed to helping girls and women fight. “We’re going state by state and introducing legislation,” Reiss says. Their efforts influenced recent progress in New York, Texas, and Virginia, and, Reiss says, they have additional legislation still pending in multiple states. As the debate over child marriage travels from state to state, each conversation contributes to growing awareness for their cause. “Our goal is to end child marriage in America,” Reiss says.

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 to find out more.