Slowing Chipping Away at Child Marriage in the US
Child marriage is condemned by the international community and the stated goals of the U.S. State Department. In fact, the State Department’s “U.S Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls” calls marriage before 18 a “human rights abuse.” However, most states still have laws that allow for the marriage of children under the age of 18. Eighteen states don’t even have a minimum age that a child can be married. So far in the US, only two states, New Jersey and Delaware, have banned all child marriages with no exceptions. Between 2016 and 2018, eleven states have passed laws that limit child marriage but still keep some exceptions, mainly relating to parental consent and 16 or 17-year-olds marrying someone within a few years of their own age. Ten additional states have introduced bills curtailing child marriage, many of which were sent to study or died at the end of the legislative session in 2018, but with plans to be reintroduced in the next session.
The advocacy organizations leading the charge for new protections for minors are insistent that only a limit of 18 years old with no exceptions is good enough; especially since some of the legal exceptions exacerbate the problem. For example, requiring only parental consent, especially when only a single parent’s consent is needed for marriage under the age of 18 leaves minors unprotected from marriage due to coercion. A few states still allow for exceptions when the girl is pregnant, even if she is below the age of consent. Pregnancy, of course, is one of the situations where girls are most often coerced into marrying men, some of whom are their rapists.
Earlier this month, Ohio joined the ranks of states attempting to fix this problem, if imperfectly. House Bill 511 was introduced by
Republican Rep. Laura Lanese and Democratic Rep. John Rogers last year with the intention of updating the former law, which treated boys and girls differently. Previously, girls could get married at 16 with parental consent, although boys could not get married below the age of 18 without the consent of a juvenile court.
The new law, which was signed by Governor John Kasich just before he left office in January, creates gender equality by requiring both boys and girls to be 18 in order to get married. The only exemption allowed is a marriage at 17 if there is no more than a four-year age difference, if a juvenile court consents and requires a 14 day waiting period. In the processes of determining whether to give consent, the court is instructed to consult with the parent or guardian, and appoint a guardian ad litem. Additionally, a court must determine if the minor is in the armed forces, employed and self-subsisting or otherwise independent of a parent or guardian, and if the minor is free from force or coercion in the decision to marry. The couple must also have completed marriage counseling satisfactory to the court. Additionally, a provision was added that requires official proof of age.
There were strong reasons for the Ohio Legislature to act. According to the Dayton Daily News, over 4,400 girls aged 17 or younger were married in Ohio between 2000 and 2015. Of those, 59 were 15 or younger, and three were 14 years old. Additionally, according to the Ohio Department of Health, there were 302 boys under the age of 17 were married between 2000 and 2015, with the approval of parents or a juvenile court. A significant driver of the child marriages seems to be when a minor girl gets pregnant by an older man.
These types of marriages have harsh consequences including being 50% more likely to drop out of high school, three times more likely to experience psychiatric disorders, and divorce rates of almost 80%, which can more than double the chance a teen mother ends up in poverty. Additionally, women who marry as minors lack the ability and resources to remove themselves from a harmful relationship. For example, most domestic-violence shelters cannot accept minors, minors who leave home are considered runaways, and child-protective services can usually do little in regards to legal marriages. Furthermore, a child is unlikely to have the resources to escape an abusive relationship, pay attorney fees, or even sign any other legally binding document.
In Massachusetts, there is currently no age requirement for marriage, with minors requiring a half page petition, and approval by parents and the courts. The statistics for child marriages in Massachusetts consist of 1,200 children as young as 14 married from 2000 to 2016. In the time period from 2005 to 2016, 89% were underage females married to adult men. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Harriet Chandler and Democratic Rep. Kay Khan introduced bills (S785/H2310) to end all child marriage with no exceptions. The bill stalled, however, because as Democratic Rep. Khan noted because legislators were not been able to hear from victims who want to talk about their experience. The bill was refiled at the beginning of the new legislative session that began in January.
Slowly, but surely, states are addressing the evils that come with child marriage.
Amanda Simile will graduate from Boston University School of Law in May 2020.