I learned recently about something I had naively thought was not an America problem: that forced marriage of girls as young as 10 or 11 years old to much older men is happening in the United States. The National Consumers League (NCL) works to protect children from child labor and child marriage.
The connection between early marriage and child labor is that girls get sold to husbands who use and often abuse them as domestics; the girls are expected to cook, clean, wash clothes, fetch water, and bear and care for children.
Internationally, we support such movements as “Girls Not Brides,” which fights the scourge of child marriage in Africa and around the globe. However, recently Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times highlighted the plight of a young American girl, Sherry Johnson, who was raped at nine years old, became pregnant in Florida as part of an evangelical community, and was forced to marry at the age of 11 her 20-year-old rapist.
Even before she married, Johnson gave birth to a daughter at the age of 10. Unchained At Last is an American advocacy group that tracks child marriage. It was founded by advocate Fraidy Reiss, who gave a recent interview to National Public Radio, herself grew up in the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community under laws that require consent from husbands before a woman can divorce. Her group estimates that over a decade, 250,000 girls as young as 10 have been forced to marry in the US. Twenty-seven states don’t enforce a minimum age for child marriage.
I was astonished to learn of the plight of these girls. Just like in less developed countries, girls are sold to older men as brides at 10- and 11-years-old in some part of the United States. Many of them become pregnant long before it’s safe for them to bear children. Because so many states have no minimum age for marriage, girls in aren’t protected if their parents force them to marry or sell them to an older man. Leaders of the movement to get states to require girls to be 18 before they are allowed to marry say it’s far more difficult than they predicted to get these laws passed across all 50 states.
In June, Texas—the state with the nation’s second highest child-marriage rate—banned the practice, prohibiting marriage to individuals under 18 unless they are 16 or 17 AND are an emancipated minor (and therefore considered to be adults). Between 2000 and 2014, nearly 40,000 minors were married in Texas, including girls as young as 12.
“Girls who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than their peers and four times less likely to finish college,” noted reporter Christina Cauterucci, who has written about the child marriage epidemic. “They experience higher rates of psychiatric disorders and face rates of intimate-partner violence nearly three times higher than the U.S. average.”
The National Consumers League supports a ban on marriage for people under 18 unless they are emancipated minors. This broad based policy would eliminate many forced marriages involving children while protecting them from the risks to their mental, physical and emotional well-being associated with early marriage.