It happens here, too: Thousands of American girls face forced marriage

The average age to walk down the aisle has steadily climbed for American women, up from age 20 in the 1960s to 27 in 2015. But while many women are waiting to tie the knot until they've graduated from college or secured their dream jobs, thousands of American girls get married before they even make it out of high school.

In order to legally bind oneself to another human being through marriage, most states require both parties to be at least 18-years-old. Yet every state in the nation offers some exception to that rule, allowing for teens to marry with parental consent or due to a pregnancy, which advocates say is insufficient to ensure a child's best interests are protected.

"Parental consent can hide parental coercion and a pregnancy can be evidence of a rape," Jeanne Smoot, Senior Policy Council at the Tahirih Justice Center, told TakePart.

While the majority of the 700 million women alive today that were married before they turned 18 are in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, child marriage in the U.S. is far from rare. The Tahirih Justice Center, which also works to protect women and girls from domestic violence and human trafficking, has been combing through individual state records to determine the most egregious holes in marriage law and found that their home state of Virginia was often failing to protect its girls.

About 4,500 children were married in Virginia between 2004 and 2013, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. Ninety percent of the children married were girls and the majority married adults over the age of 21. Nearly 100 of them married an adult more than 10 years her senior.

"A lot of people when they first think of [child marriage], they think 'oh this is something that happens somewhere else' and they don't realize that this absolutely is happening here," Virginia Rep. Jennifer McClellan told TakePart. "The most disturbing [case] was a 13-year-old pregnant girl. When she showed up at the court, somebody should have said 'hold up, she is pregnant, someone committed a crime.' Instead she was given a marriage license and married the person who committed that crime."

With guidance from the Tahirih Justice Center, McClellan introduced legislation to amend Virginia's marriage laws, which allows 16- or 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent. Children 15-years-old or younger can also get married with parental consent if there's evidence of a pregnancy. McClellan's legislation completely bans marriage for anyone under 16-years-old and also requires 16- and 17-year-olds be legally emancipated from their parents.

Without emancipation, married minors are stuck in a gray area. They're unable to file for divorce or request a protective order. In Virginia, Child Protective Services only steps in for minors being abused by a parent, guardian, or caretaker—with spouses not considered caretakers. Minors may also struggle to find a shelter willing to house them, as many have age requirements or are legally obligated to report minors as runaways.

"What this bill does is say 'if you are going to enter into the adult relationship of a marriage we need to make sure you're doing this of your own free will...we're also going to give you all of the rights of an adult, so if that marriage does go wrong, you can get out,'" McClellan explained. Her bill passed the state legislature earlier this month and awaits a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe to be signed into law.

Smoot explained that while Virginia's law may be sufficient to protect children from forced or coerced marriage due to the robust regulations already in place for emancipation orders—including legal counsel for the child and judges' ability to launch an investigation if they suspect abuse—girls in other states with high rates of child marriage might not benefit from the same legislation.

Lawmakers in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York have introduced bills that would change the age of marriage to 18-years-old without exception. These states have child marriage figures that are similar to those in Virginia, according to research from Unchained at Last, an organization working alongside the Tahirih Justice Center to end underage marriage. In Maryland, 3,100 children were married between 2000 and 2014. At least 69 of the girls in Maryland were under 15-years-old and victims of statutory rape, as they married due to pregnancy and to men at least four years their senior. Between 1995 and 2012, nearly 3,500 children were married in New Jersey. More than 3,800 children were married between 2000 and 2010 in New York. Both New Jersey and New York state laws require judicial consent for children under 16-years-old to marry, but contain little criteria for judges to consider, resulting in a New Jersey judge allowing a 10-year-old boy to marry an 18-year-old woman New York judges signing orders for at least three girls under 15-years-old to marry men 25 or older.

Smoot and her colleagues have heard from girls across the country who are stuck in abusive marriages, representing a wide range of religious, socio-economic, and family backgrounds.

"[Child marriage] has deep roots in a lot of different traditions," Smoot explained, ticking off a list of scenarios which can result in coerced marriage, including pressure from an abusive boyfriend or threats from parents upon discovering that their child is sexually active.

Both McClellan and Smoot noted that pregnancy exceptions for child marriage indicate a stubborn stigma attached to an unwed mom.

"That's a value statement that is more about the pregnancy than about the safety and well-being of that girl," said Smoot of pregnancy exceptions. Marriage likely isn't in the best interest of a teen mom. Research from the College of William and Mary found that teen moms who marry before giving birth as less likely to finish high school than those who do not marry.

"Children in the U.S. aren't somehow immune from all of those consequences we hear about overseas," Smoot said, with child marriage setting roadblocks to education for teens irregardless of pregnancy. Children who marry before 18-years-old are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college. Married children also face higher rates of domestic and sexual abuse, and have an increased likelihood of transmitting HIV. Nearly 80 percent of children that marry before they turn 18 will get divorced, and with lower levels of education, these girls are more likely to live in poverty.

While the passage of Virginia's law is a big victory for the Tahirih Justice Center, Smoot notes there is a lot more work to be done to protect girls across the country.

"What we know about child marriage in the U.S. is that we're looking at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of what the nature and scope of the problem is," Smoot said. "We're hoping that with more knowledge, people will feel compelled to act to address the gaps in protection and the clear harms that result from it."

Take the Pledge: Take a Stand Against Forced Marriage

Take a deeper look into the problem of forced marriages:

Forced Marriage: How Big Is the Problem?

Related stories on TakePart:
By Refusing to Be a Child Bride, This Teen Helped Ban Underage Marriage in Her Entire Country
This Child Bride Is Tackling Gender Inequality on the Mat
Men Are Stepping Up to Fight Child Marriage in Pakistan

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