The American Nightmare: Child Marriages in the USA  

Who’d have thought it? In almost all of the American federal states, child marriages are legal subject to certain conditions, and in five of these there is no minimum age for these. It is usually girls who are impacted, who are forced to marry adult men. The youngest child in such an arrangement was just 10 years old at the time of her marriage. The reasons underlying child marriages in the USA usually differ from those in developing countries.  

The US is well-known as being the country of unlimited possibilities. It is also a country of contradictions, however. While it is only permitted to drink beer from the age of 21 onwards, teenagers can handle guns, drive pick-up trucks, and – however absurd it may sound – it is possible to marry before you do any of the things mentioned above.  

When you take a closer look, child marriages are not just a problem in developing countries. In fact, around 300,000 marriages were concluded in the USA between 2000 and 2018 in which at least one of the partners was a minor. Less surprisingly, perhaps, it usually involved grown men marrying under-age girls. The youngest girl was just 10 years old at the time of her marriage. In 40 out of 50 states, child marriages remain legal to this day, as long as the legal guardians consent. While the minimum age varies, in five states, even including the traditionally liberal state of California, there is no restriction whatsoever.  

While the main reason for marrying off young girls in developing countries is usually poverty, it often has a religious or cultural background in the USA. Religious freedom is highly valued in the United States, and politicians tend to shy away from getting involved in “family matters”. As a result, countless sects exist in which child marriages are “part of normality”. Children are often also married to get a visa for the marriage partner.  

Sara has been an adult for many years now, but suffers to this day from being married off earlier in life. She was just 15 when her father forced her to marry a man 13 years older than her. For the remainder of her youth, she looked on jealously as other girls of her age were allowed to go to school. Sara became pregnant shortly after the marriage.  

Most child marriages end in divorce. But the women cannot enjoy their newly-won freedom; first of all, this is because they are traumatised, and secondly, they have a difficult start to independence. Sara saved her money, and eventually, by her early twenties, she had enough to move out and submit the divorce. During the following years, she lived with her children, occasionally on the street. Many women who do get out of such marriages do not have a school-leaving certificate, any career training, or any basis for building up a financially stable life. What they do have are children, for whom they have to provide. These “lost years” are difficult to make good.  

UNICEF categorises all child marriages as forced marriages, and is working intensively to ensure they are completely abolished by 2030.  

But can’t a child marriage be dissolved after a short time, so preventing even worse things from happening?  

Unfortunately, it’s not always quite so simple As a rule, children can only initiate a court process through a legal guardian. The age of majority in all states in the US is at least 18. That means it is practically impossible to get divorced before your 18th birthday without the help of an adult. Parents who marry off a child are hardly likely to support that child in a divorce.  

Fleeing is usually also hopeless. The girls have no income to provide for themselves. Women’s refuges will not take in under-age girls, since by law, runaways have to be taken back to their parents. Youth welfare offices do not intervene in child marriages either, if they have been legally concluded.  

In fact, laws in some US states even create perfidious incentives for child marriage, since they permit sexual acts with minors within marriage. In order to be allowed to sexually abuse a child, therefore – to put it bluntly – all you need do is put a ring on their finger.  

This problem has attracted increasing amounts of attention in recent years. The states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have banned marriage for those under 18 in recent years, without exception, while others have at least introduced a minimum age – it’s a start. Unfortunately, there are strong voices against abolition. Some conservatives, for example, believe unintentionally pregnant teenagers would be more likely to have an abortion if they didn’t have the possibility of getting married. Others believe the state should not get involved in family matters.  

Despite all this, opposition is growing. Most importantly of all, the recently-founded NGO “Unchained at Last is mobilising, while politicians are also standing up for the abolition of child marriage.  

Translated by Tim Lywood

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