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Saturday, June 3, 2023

In 46 out of 50 states of USA, child marriage remains legal – Part 3

In Bharat, even the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 has set the age at marriage to be 18 for girls and 21 for boys. But in the United states, only four (New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota) out of 50 states have completely banned child marriage mandating 18 as the legal age to marry, with no exceptions allowed. Even this was done only in the last three years and bills to end child marriage are pending in 12 states.

In states where child marriages are legal, the legal age to marry is between 14 and 16 years. In some states with legal child marriages, the age of consent for sex is higher and set between 16 and 18 years. This means children can get marriage licenses before they can legally consent to sex.

Founded by a victim of child marriage, a group called Unchained At Last works to free child-marriage victims and push for legislative reforms. A study by this group found that 11 states have no lower age limit for marriage.

Apart from these 11 states, there are a few states that give child-marriage licenses to younger children through loopholes like parental consent or a judge’s nod. For example, children as young as 12 have been given licenses in states like Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, and New Hampshire, 13-year olds have received child marriage licenses.

In five states, minor girls can get married even without parental consent if they are pregnant thus making child marriage a way to legalize statutory rape. If we look at the of provision of marriage licenses to children through various loopholes, as many as 25 states do not have an absolute minimum age for marriage.

Chloe Rockwell who hails from Idaho was 16 years old when she married a 22-year old she met online. He convinced her to marry him and thus evaded what could have been a life sentence for rape. According to Idaho’s laws, sex with a 16 year old is punishable by life in prison if the perpetrator is older by three years or more. Chloe wonders why it is legal for a man to rape a 16-year old if he is married to her.

More child marriages occur in the southern states and in some rural farming states like Idaho. According to Pew Research, in the three-year span between 2011 and 2014, 40, 000 children were married off in the southern state of Texas. Other states in the list of high incidence of child marriages are Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia, and even the ‘liberal’ state of California.

As many as 300,000 children were married between 2000 and 2018 as found by a study carried out by Unchained At Last. Alarmingly, 60,000 of these marriages involved younger children and/or had high spousal age differences. Also, close to 12% of these 60,000 marriages happened in states where even though the marriage is deemed legal, sex within the marriage is not. In the absence of monitoring what happens behind closed doors, such marriages provide a means for child rape to be perpetrated.

In 88% of these 60,000 marriages the state laws allow for the marriage exception to what would otherwise be statutory rape. Even the federal criminal code prohibits sex with children between 12 and 15 but specifically exempts those who have first married the child. This means, these child marriages are being used to legally commit child rape and child sexual abuse.

Donna Pollard from Kentucky was 16 when she married a man twice her age. She says that child marriage is extremely prevalent in the US. Hailing from an abusive family, Pollard had to live at a behavioural-health facility when she was 14 where a mental-health technician much older than her abused her. He also groomed her into imagining that what they had was a true relationship. She ended up marrying her abuser and later suffered domestic abuse. She found that domestic violence shelters were often reluctant to take in minors without the intervention of an adult. In some states, children are not allowed to file criminal charges against abusive spouses. This makes underage marriage a legal trap as minors cannot pursue legal action including divorce.

Pollard’s research of her own family history made her realize that underage marriages in southern states have been taking place for generations. In her family on the mother’s side, there had been an underage marriage in ‘each of the past five generations.’ Correlating factors vary but include poverty or even parents trafficking children to get money for drugs.

Pollard helped bring in legislative reform in Kentucky so that the lower marriage age limit was made 16 or 17, the parental consent aspect was removed, and judges had to authorize marriages based on certain criteria. Prior to the reform, bureau clerks had no authority to intervene even when they sensed that a child did not want to get married.

Ironically, while minors may not be allowed to pursue divorce independently, there is no restriction for minors to petition for a foreign visa for a fiancé or spouse. This makes child trafficking easy and predators from overseas, with the help of traffickers on US soil, can easily prey on children. The US approved 8868 spousal or fiancé visas involving a minor between 2007 and 2017, according to the US Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Given this scenario on child marriage, it is strange that many Americans are unaware of the severity of the problem within the US. One report explains that this is because child marriage tends to be portrayed as a problem of the developing world including India, Africa, and the Middle East. Due to this, even when Americans are informed that it afflicts the US, they assume that it is a practice among immigrant populations, but the fact is that ‘even at the height of immigration to the US in 1910s and 1920s, US-born white children of US-born parents were more likely to be married as minors’ than first or second generation immigrants. Child marriage in US-born African American children was 1.5 times that in US-born white children.

Nicholas Syrett’s  American Child Bride, traces the history of child marriage in the US and asserts that child marriage in the US was far more widespread  that commonly thought. In 2016, he estimated that 9% of living American women had been married before 18.

Child marriage in the US shows that it is not merely a problem of developing countries. Activists targeting Bharat should also seek legal reform in USA where child marriage is connected to societal issues they face like broken families, substance abuse, and trafficking to sexual predators.

(Featured Image Source: globalcitizen.org)

(Earlier parts of this series – Part 1, Part 2)

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