Close your eyes and count to three before opening them. In that time, one or more girls in the world have entered child marriage. That equates to 12 million girls who marry annually before the age of 18, according to the organization Girls Not Brides.
According to UNICEF, child marriage is defined as any marriage that a male or female enters into when they are under 18. Child marriage is an umbrella term that describes both official marriages and unofficial unions in which minors are in a partnership that is like marriage.
Photo: Charisse Kenion on Unsplash
Child marriage is a significant problem in the US, in addition to other countries. A Forbes article reported that over 200,000 individuals in the US under the age of 18 were married between the years of 2000 and 2015. There are myriad consequences to child marriage. The practice has negative educatory effects, as well as drastic repercussions for other aspects of minors’ welfare. Individuals who marry under the age of 18 are twice as likely to be impoverished as those who marry as adults. Female minors who marry prematurely also have a 50% greater chance of dropping out of school than those who marry at age 18 or older. Young girls who get married are three times more likely to experience spousal abuse. Women who marry when young are also at a greater risk of having health issues. Specifically, females who get married between the ages of 15 and 19 are two times more likely than 20-something women to die during childbirth. The divorce rate of child marriages is also immensely high: 70-80% of such marriages are terminated.
Many girls in the US who marry as minors are forced to do so against their own will. Such young women are frequently coerced into marriage through manipulation tactics. Some females are forced to enter child marriage through physical abuse and verbal intimidation, said organization Unchained At a Glance.
Sherry Johnson is a well-known individual who was coerced into marriage at the mere age of 11. An NPR interview with Johnson describes how she was raped by multiple persons and became pregnant at the age of nine. Johnson recalls being forced into child marriage upon becoming pregnant. “I gave birth to my daughter at the age of ten…then I was forced to marry my rapist at age 11…he was 20,” Johnson recounts in the interview. Johnson also reflects on the nightmare that became a reality for her as a young wife and mother with no knowledge of how to care for a baby. “I didn’t know what to do with the child, I didn’t have a clue what to do as a wife,” she explains. “It was trauma to try to figure it out. I had to wash diapers when I got home from school before I did my homework…so they would dry before the sun went down. To do that and then try to learn how to cook dinner for my husband…it was just torture.”
Sherry Johnson has since gotten a divorce and become a motivational speaker and advocate for banning child marriage nationwide. Johnson’s activism has helped tighten child marriage laws in Florida, where she is from. Individuals under 18 in Florida are now not legally allowed to wed, with some exceptions. Specifically, minors who are 17 years old can get married when parental consent is provided—so long as their spouse is no more than two years older than them according to a Northwest Florida Daily News article.
The change in law in Florida is a step in the right direction of banning child marriage in the state. Many 17 year old Floridians are still technically permitted to marry, however, as previously mentioned. Child marriage is legal in the majority of the US—not just in Florida. Shockingly, all states in the US except for New Jersey and Delaware permit individuals younger than eighteen to wed. Each state has specific child marriage laws. Missouri has the loosest child marriage law in the country. 15 years olds can get married in Missouri if the signature of at one parent is provided. Individuals younger than 15 can legally wed in Missouri with a judge’s permission. Child marriage laws are not much stricter in Maine, Louisiana and Idaho: individuals can wed in all three states with parental permission and judicial approval, according to a law database.
Organizations such as UNICEF, Unchained at Last, and Girls Not Brides are stepping up—and often working in tandem with one another—to try to ban child marriage. UNICEF promotes child marriage bans in each state in the U.S. and empowers volunteers to spread word about such laws nationwide. The organization Girls Not Brides seeks to end child marriage at a global level by spreading awareness about the oft devastating effects such unions have on its victims.
Unchained At Last specifically works to end child marriage in the U.S. Unchained at Last provides support services to young American women forced into marriage. These organizations have made a large dent in the goal to make child marriage illegal. There is much more work necessary to achieve this goal. Here are some ways you can step up and held end child marriage in the U.S.:
- Volunteer at Unchained At Last.
- Consider starting an #UnchainedClub chapter at your high school or college. You can help spread the word of the often horrific effects of child marriage, raise money for Unchained at Last and more through an #UnchainedClub.
Child marriage is rampant issue in the US that that is not discussed enough. The practice of child marriage often leads to devastating consequences for those who enter into it. Consider stepping up to help protect minors in our country from going through the severe trauma and suffering that so frequently accompanies child marriage.
Kat Frabotta is a young adult living in New York City. In her dream world, she has a Chihuahua named Frances, but for now, dog-sitting will have to be enough. She hopes to visit Nigeria one day and has an unhealthy obsession with pasta.