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The scandal of child marriage in the United States

Forced Marriage

In the United Kingdom we are familiar with stories of young girls being sent to Pakistan or India on the pretext of visiting their grandparents and then being married off to a distant relative who is usually some years older than themselves. There are also cases of forced marriages of minors taking place in this country, within certain immigrant communities. The girls in question find themselves living lives of domestic slavery and if they are below the age of 16 – as many of them are – the victims of regularly repeated statutory rape.

Shocking as these cases are, their illegality is beyond question – at least as far as those marriages that take place within the United Kingdom. However, there is a western country where such events are common and are entirely legal. That country is the United States of America.

A Disturbing Survey

The charity Unchained At Last carried out a survey across all 50 states and found – in the 38 states for which information was available – that over a ten year period (2000 to 2010) 167,000 licences were issued for the marriage of people who were aged under 18, which is the official minimum age for marriage in almost all 50 states. However, exceptions are granted on application to a judge, and in 25 states there is no age below which the exception applies. It is known that children as young as 10 have been married under these arrangements, and licences issued in cases where a consummated marriage would constitute statutory rape due to the age difference between the partners.

For a marriage to be legal, all that is needed is for permission to be granted by one parent. As a minor, the child’s views are not deemed valid in court.

A Widespread Problem

The survey revealed that child marriages take place in the United States within families that belong to all major religions and several minor ones, as well as those who declare no religious affiliation. The socio-economic background is immaterial, as is whether the people involved are recent immigrants or belong to communities that have been resident in the country for many generations.

Cases that have come to light include that of Sherrie in Florida, who was repeatedly raped by members of her church congregation and became pregnant at the age of ten. Her parents insisted that she marry the father, who was 20 years old, and this was agreed by a local judge who saw this as a means of avoiding prosecuting the man for rape.

Other cases have come to light when supposedly Christian sects have been unveiled that practiced polygamy, often involving underage girls. Examples include the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Arizona and the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Successful prosecutions have been made in such cases, but the offence has been polygamy as opposed to the young age of the girls involved.

Lack of Legal Redress

If a girl wishes to escape from what is often a forced marriage, to someone she does not know and may only have met for the first time on the day of the ceremony, she has very few options and virtually no legal protection. The fact that she is under 18, and therefore denied the legal rights of an adult, means that she cannot bring a case before a court because any contract involving a child is voidable – except, of course, for the original marriage contract.

If a girl runs away from her marital home and goes to a domestic violence shelter she will be turned away, because such places only cater for adult victims. The police will pursue runaways and return them to their husbands if they are caught. Anyone found to have assisted a runaway could find themselves in court because they have committed a criminal offence.

Taking Action

Apart from organisations such as Unchained at Last, some people in the United States have taken steps to put this situation to rights. In New Jersey a bill was introduced in the state legislature in 2016 that would have banned all marriages and civil unions to any person younger than 18. This had widespread support and the measure was passed in the final vote by 115 votes to five. However, it was vetoed in May 2017 by the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, on the grounds that it was discriminatory against certain religious groups, although he did not state which ones he had in mind.

Some groups have sought to defend child marriage because it provides a route by which a child conceived by an underage girl can avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. In reply to this one might say that there is a legal option already available – it’s called adoption.

There is, however, better news from other states – such as New York, Maryland and Virginia – where legislation to curtail child marriage looks to have a good chance of success.

More Must Be Done

There is clearly a need to deal with this issue in a sensitive manner and to be aware that one size may not fit all when it comes to legislating for cultural practices that are offensive to some communities but not others. The proposed New Jersey law, for example, would have gone further than what is allowed in the UK, where marriage is legal from the age of 16 – for both sexes – as long as parental permission has been given. Even this stipulation does not apply in Scotland, hence the past popularity of young couples eloping to Gretna Green, which is just over the border from England. However, there is surely a world of difference between couples who want to marry against their parents’ wishes and the cases of forced marriage that are under discussion in terms of the American situation.

If nothing is done, states in the US are, in effect, sanctioning paeodophilia by allowing children as young as ten to be the official sexual partners of older men and forced to bring up the children of their husbands while having their own childhood cruelly curtailed.

Lines have to be drawn. In the United States it would appear that this process is at an unacceptably early stage. Child marriage is certainly not a problem that applies only in America. But where else in the western world is it tolerated so widely and supported by the legal framework? Change is long overdue.

What do you think?

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      • That would be a problem. When that is the case it is a problem and should be addressed. It is not always the case. People can express their will. There are thousands of organizations and options to help them do so.

        • But the whole point of this issue is that the victims are unable to express their will. As children they have no voice in the legal system. There are certainly organizations that can help them, and Unchained at Last is one of them, but what if a child has no way of making contact with adults who can help?

          We are talking here about forced marriage, and it is the force that is wrong and needs to be addressed. That means that the legal system that permits this abuse must be changed.

    • This piece is based on slightly old information and I was half hoping that someone would tell me that it was now out of date and the problem had been solved. Unfortunately that does not appear to be case.

      • The situation is better than portrayed but still not horribly acceptable. Plus as is often the case the numbers are a little skewed. There are more than 8 million marriages in the US every single year so the number and percentage has crept down. The issue isn’t the reducing rate over time, the reality is that it happens in the first place. That is what is bad.

        • Doc, thanks for that. I do so agree with you that quoting reducing numbers can be an excuse for pretending that a problem has been solved. It is like when a TV consumer programme states that certain numbers of people are dissatisfied with a service or product and the company concerned replies with “99% of our customers have not reported any problem at all”. That is little comfort to you if are in the other 1%!

          • the 1% is always bad to be in, unless it is a law of large numbers case, when the 1% is of a billion users, then it isn’t as significant and while painful the reality is it is fair to say 99% don’t have an issue.

            If however the 99% are out of 100, then it is a little more painful for the 1%

    • This is one of those issues where one has to set the freedoms offered to individuals and groups against the dictates of the greater good. In a free society, how much freedom do you allow to people whose actions cause distress to others?

      When religion comes into the picture the waters get even muddier. Should all religious practices be defended, however repulsive they might be? For example, why should certain religions be able to stipulate that animals killed for meat must bleed to death because their “holy books” – written thousands of years ago – say so? How’s that for controversial!

      • Ah, now you get one of my all-time favorite arguments!

        1. Once upon a time in the country that is now America, the countries of Europe sent all the people they didn’t want to this new land and said, first, get out of Europe. Now go to this new place America.
        2. Add peopel fleeing Europe due to famines and other issues.
        3. Mix.
        4. Stir.
        5. Wait 200 years.
        now what do you have?
        Religious freedom is the basis of the nation that is the United States.

        I suspect given the rate of change and the time it takes the country (US) to change, it is going to be a while before these types of issues go away.

        • It has been said – by an American academic – that the Pilgrim Fathers of the 1620s did not so much seek freedom from persecution as freedom to persecute!

          There was a good reason why many of the early settlers were not wanted in Europe and that was that they were particularly unpleasant people – not just religious trouble-making zealots but also criminals who were transported to the colonies. The latter practice stopped after the Declaration of Independence, when Australia became the favoured destination for Britain’s “unwanteds”.

          Agreed – later emigrants raised the standard somewhat, but religious fundamentalism is a trend that survived and is still dominant in American politics. It is possible to be a declared atheist and rise to a high level in British politics, but just try it in the United States!

          Yes – you are free to practice any religion you like, but not if you want a position of leadership.

          • True. Sad in many ways, in particular the overall concept of what counts as a good religious leader. I would defend this a little, but frankly as you’ve nicely stated, it ultimately was a dual edged sword (being unwanted has to count for something, though.)

  1. It is horrifying that children are subjected to this abuse by pedophiles hiding behind religious freedom. Human rights groups are actively seeking to protect children under the age of 16 in the United States but it is being fought on a state by state basis- as if the right to protection against rape were a “states rights” issue.

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