Believe it or not child marriage is not just an ancient relic from a sexist past. Nor is it a problem that exists only beyond our borders. Child marriage is a human rights violation that has affected more than 650 million girls and women alive today — including hundreds of thousands of American girls. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were legally married in the U.S. Almost all of them were girls married to adult men. This is unconscionable.
Child marriage prevents girls from leading healthy and productive lives and puts their safety at risk. Child brides in the U.S. are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school, four times less likely to finish college and close to a third more likely to end up in poverty. They face a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes and stroke than women who married between 19 and 25 do, and an increased risk of various psychiatric disorders. A global study also showed they are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouse than those who marry at 21 or older.
Minors frequently have little to no recourse when it comes to arranged marriages, and face overwhelming legal and practical barriers if they try to say no to a marriage their parents have planned for them, or to get out of a marriage once they are in it. They cannot easily retain an attorney, because contracts with children, including retainer agreements, usually are voidable. Children typically are not allowed to file for divorce on their own. In many states, children under 18 are considered “runaways” if they try to leave home, even to escape an abusive husband, and are often returned by authorities against their will. Advocate organizations like Unchained At Last that help them escape can be charged criminally for doing so. And many of these children have nowhere safe to go, as most domestic violence shelters do not take in anyone under 18 who is not accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Though the United States has committed to eliminating early and forced marriage by 2030, there is no federal law prohibiting child marriage and marriage before the age of 18 remains legal in 48 U.S. states. State lawmakers across the U.S. have refused to pass simple, commonsense legislation to eliminate this human rights abuse. Their reasons for not doing so fall along a spectrum of absurdity, like Sen. Gerald Cardinale’s (R-N.J.) admonition about the negative impact on 16-year-old girls who feel “genuine affection” for 50-year-old men, or Rep. Tim Dukes’ (R-Del.) ludicrous insistence that pregnant teens must marry because a baby whose parents are not legally married “can’t be raised in a loving home or have the same last name as his or her parents.”
Even a few self-described feminists have argued against ending child marriage citing a negative impact on access to medical care for pregnant girls. Let us be clear. Eliminating child marriage should in no way impact access to reproductive health care, as some argued in Maryland last April. Marriage is a legal contract, wholly different from any medical procedure. That is obvious to us and should be obvious to anyone who is focused on protecting girls’ and women’s health.
Indeed, if any one group of girls is at the highest risk of forced marriage and the least able to get policymakers’ sympathy, it seems to be pregnant teenage girls. Unchained has seen many parents who believe the only response to a pregnancy is a marriage — even when the pregnancy results from a rape. This was the case in 2016 when a 14-year-old-girl from Idaho was forced to marry her 24-year-old rapist with the consent of her father. Despite the evidence, some parents and policymakers seem unaware that pregnant teens who marry are more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability than pregnant girls who stay single.
But the good news is that progress is possible. In 2018, after three and a half years of conducting research, meeting one-on-one with legislators, testifying at legislative hearings, writing op-ed articles, protesting and recruiting allies, Unchained At Last helped make Delaware and New Jersey the first two states to ban all marriage before 18. Now legislation to do the same thing is pending in 11 more states, evidence of the growing national movement to end child marriage across the country.
Child marriage deserves as much attention as any other threat to women’s health and women’s rights. We hope you will visit Unchained’s website to learn how you can join us and the newly formed National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the U.S. ) in raising our voices to show leaders across the U.S. that we are serious about ending this human rights abuse that destroys girls’ lives.
Chelsea Clinton is vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and the bestselling author of She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World. She holds a doctorate degree in international relations from Oxford University and a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University. Chelsea has been a long-time advocate against child marriage in the U.S. and around the world, and supporter of organizations leading those efforts, including Unchained at Last.
Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor turned advocate. She is founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that fights forced and child marriage in the U.S. through direct services and advocacy.