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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Child Marriages and the US


  • By Phoebe Thomas

Michello DeMello was 16 when she was forced to marry her 19-year-old boyfriend in Colorado. The reason? – She had fallen pregnant and her conservative parents felt it was better to preserve the family honour. She was then stuck in a marriage that she didn’t want to be in that ultimately ended in divorce. DeMello was a lucky one that got out.  But not everyone in her situation is that lucky. Although the US has a strict foreign policy on child marriages, decreeing that marriage before 18 is a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood” by forcing her “into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature”, and that around 250,000 children were wed between 2000 and 2010, the issue is increasingly unrecognized and ignored.

So how much do we really know about this ongoing issue? Nowadays, it is unclear the rate of child marriages, how old a child bride is, whether it’s legal and more. I sent out a survey to see just how much everyone knew about child marriages, surveying people from international backgrounds that currently live both inside and outside of the US, and are either in High School or are private High school teachers – a demographic which are usually well informed on international issues. Hopefully, this article will provide an insight into a crisis that should not be occurring in a country as developed as the US. 

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The question debating the existence of child marriages is important and thankfully most people were aware that in the US child marriages still do exist. However, it was more unclear what constitutes a child bride or groom in the US, almost 60% of people were incorrect in their assumptions as the US considers people under 18 as minors, who then fall into the category of a child bride or groom as parental or judicial consent is needed to authorize the marriage. Furthermore, many of the people taking the survey were shocked at the number of minors who were married in the US between the years of 2000 and 2015. The majority guessed between 2,000 – 3,000, with some estimating that it was a little as between 200-500 minors. However in actuality, the group Unchained At Last compiled evidence that showed that at least 207,468 minors were married, and the number is likely to be greater as 10 states provided no or incomplete statistics, an unfortunate but usual occurrence.

Options 1. 200-500 2. 2,000-3,000 3. 200,000 – 300,000 4. 500,000 +



For the question of where child marriages are legal, people were slightly confused as not all knew where and why child marriage is legal. As it turns out some were surprised by the number of loopholes allowing it. 

Options 1. Almost every state 2. No states 3. Most states prohibit marriage under 18 but have exceptions 4. Southern Bible States 5. Over 1/2 of states don’t have a minimum age requirement

In actuality, although the answers highlighted in green are correct, the most accurate description of the law and child marriages is that although most states prohibit marriage under the age of 18, this isn’t because children under 18 are unable to marry at all, just simply that they need a parent’s consent to marry. So in the US over ½ of all American states don’t have an actual minimum age for marriage and those that do have multiple exceptions put in place which can negate the minimum age limits. The most common exceptions are that the girl has become pregnant or has recently given birth, or that the parents or a judge have given consent to the marriage.



Specifically, in the states, heavily religious states were the most likely to have high rates of child marriages, which in the survey was common knowledge. The area with the highest rate of child marriages was Texas and West Virginia, with rates of 6.9 and 7.1 per every 1000 15-17-year-old children. Texas luckily has decreased as in 2014 it had 9 girls out of every 1,000 marrying between the ages of 15-17.

Although clearly child marriages center around girls being forced into marriages with older men, there is still a serious problem with boys being forced into marriages with older women which mustn’t be ignored. However, this was neglected in common as many people are solely exposed to media portrayal of young girls, forced into marriage in the US.  



According to the Pew Research, as expected more girls

Information from the Pew Center

than boys are married at young ages, however, the numbers aren’t as drastically different as most people expect. So in 2014, out of the 57,800 Americans, that got married between the ages of 15-17, 31,644 were girls (55% female)  and 26,1544 were boys (45%). In the survey, I conducted I looked at the years 2000-2015 and saw a larger gap overall between girls and boys who were married as minors. However, of 45% of people underestimated the percentage of child marriages that involved underage boys, demonstrating the issue and how it is neglected. Furthermore, only approximately 16% of participants of the survey recognized the age of the youngest bride and groom married to non-minors in the years of 200-2015, as most thought that the Groom was older (age 15) with the bride age 10, when the youngest ages were 10 and 11 for the bride and groom respectively. The young ages are especially shocking when in the years 2000-2015, 368 adults who married minors were in the 40s, 61 were in their 50s and 31 were over 60, with one of the oldest people to marry a minor (aged 14) was a 74-year-old man in Alabama.



Shockingly when it came to ethnicity, the knowledge about communities most at risk was very limited. In the US, the majority of people voted that Native Americans and Hispanics have the highest rates of child marriage. However, in actuality, it is Caucasians living predominantly in these poor rural towns, that have experienced limited immigration. Furthermore, as fewer people are aware of child marriage being an issue in Caucasian communities, these minors are receiving less aid and are incredibly at risk.  Globally the ethnicity is different, however, still, here the majority of people were unaware that child marriage rates are highest in Africa, instead of turning to the Middle East as the major proponent of child marriage. Awareness is key here in changing ideas around marriage, and helping people access the help they need to escape persecution and abuse. Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, 18 are developing African country with the most affected countries of Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea all experiencing child marriage rates of over 50%. Clearly, African countries are most at risk here but that doesn’t mean that the US doesn’t need to work harder to reduce its rates of child marriage.

WIth the statistics established for the occurrences of child marriages, the causes for these marriages in a developed country such as the US come into question, as does which ethnicity is the most at risk. The reasons put forward were: Religious reasons (such as following a belief that approves of marriage at a young age or being in a cult promoting the marriage of minors), poverty, child trafficking, a partner is pregnant or has recently given birth, rape where the marriage takes away the shame, the culture of an ethnicity or because it is the wish of the minors.The majority of the people surveyed recognized that religious reasons were the primary cause of underage marriage in the US, however few recognized poverty as a reason. Power is such a crucial element of these situations, as for religious or financial reasons, parents or communities desire to control their child’s behaviour or sexuality, or use the child to get money in the form of a bride price or dowry or use the child for immigration-related reasons – so a child sponsors a foreign spouse.


In the US, the trend sees minors marrying in rural and poor areas, so officials must recognize the issue of poverty and child marriage and work to reduce this. The trend, also showing that religion is a leading cause is also important for officials to investigate as in many more secular societies, such Amish groups, orthodox Jews and strict Christian societies that are more removed from modern ways of thinking, children are at risk for abusive marriages which one of the women in the BBC video linked below discusses. Important to note it that the other causes for child marriages are still prevalent throughout the US and are a major issue, but are difficult to tackle. It is evident through the issue of recognition of causes, faced by the US impedes their work, as most people don’t admit to the situation of child marriage and don’t reveal its existence to federal authorities. Furthermore, as the non-profit Unchained At Last noted, some children are married in religious-only ceremonies or get married overseas and returned to the US so go undocumented, and find it harder to escape and get help


Listen to the testimonies of 2 survivors of child marriage in the US:“I was a slave to my ex” – Angel


So what can be done for these victims?

First and foremost is the law. Laws need to be put in place to prohibit child marriages and protect victims, and ones that are devoid of loopholes and archaic ideas about marriage and children. These laws also need to be heavily enforced, even in rural areas with little outside influence. Another crucial step is education. Education on rights and the issue is important as people are aware of child marriage’s damaging effects and on ways to curb it. Diversification of societies can be another tool, as can promote new ideas instead of archaic ones, allowing minors to live out their childhood and be free from oppressive and abusive relationships. As poverty is a leading cause of child marriages, governments need to work on reducing wealth disparity and ensuring that families are not put into desperate situations where marrying off their minor is their only option.  Furthermore, access to healthcare and sexual education will help stop pregnancy in minors, an event which can often lead to children being married off for religious reasons or to preserve reputations. Truthfully, no child’s life should be ruined to save a family’s reputation – decades of suffering aren’t worth it. People are working hard to eradicate this issue, with organizations such as the Tahirih Justice Center advocating for the rights of these minors or Unchained At Last, a nonprofit helping women resist or escape forced marriage in the US, and the public is moving to stop it by educating themselves. More can be done though, as the US should be able to show an example for developing countries, with the general public taking an active role in stopping, especially as we note a lack in resources for young boys involved in child marriages.


Currently, children face great difficulty in obtaining protection or legislation. Minors are often forced to stay in marriages because, unlike adults, they can’t file a legal action under their own names, and do not have the option to go to domestic-violence shelters as they are considered runaways and are returned to their parents and then their husband. Furthermore, aid is unable to be obtained in the form of child-protective services, as the caseworkers don’t have the prevention of legal marriages in their mandate so the children get passed around until someone can be found, which is just an extension of their traumatic experience. The mental impact of child marriages is especially damaging, as some children don’t view themselves as worthy of something other than the relationship that they are forced to be in,  and have highly limited education and then once free struggle to find the resources that they need.


Would ordinary people stop a wedding of a minor if they saw it?

Watch the public’s reactions to a social experiment where a minor “marries” a much older man:


The Survey’s Participants Suggestions of How to Improve the US’s Child Marriage Situation
Laws Education Other
have laws that enforce it and punish people that don’t follow those rules I guess. The marriage process should be regulated better. (2) Incentivizing sexual education; providing safe, stable economic opportunities for young women; providing rural areas with infrastructures to meet basic needs get rid of religion. religion makes good people do wicked things. No religious bullshit, no problem.
Put better laws in place that people can’t find loopholes around // Stop court exceptions Women’s education/ general education /Healthcare

  • These are so important (you could solve almost any global issue with them) If people live for longer + have a greater income they no longer have to depend on marriages for security/financial security. The morality of it is really subjective- often there are good reasons as well as bad reasons which vary on circumstance
Enforce tighter regulations because surely all the documents contain the ages of the bride and groom so these aren’t “under the radar” marriages, so to speak.

Pass stronger legislation to combat child marriage. Greater enforcement is also necessary.

Educate both young and old about the importance of having time and resources to help make decisions Pressure on countries that allow child brides, to make stricter laws to protect children forced to marry.
Legal marriage age laws. // Federal law that you must be 18 to consent to marriage or sex // Illegal to marry under 18 Educate for respect and defense of human rights, against abuse, for women’s rights discourage it and encourage alternative ways of becoming partners (like the PACS system in France)
Outlaw it! // Make child brides illegal // Ban it Education in correct religious philosophy Reduce teenage pregnancy
Work on making more strict laws on underage marriage especially keeping in mind the consent of the two people involved Raising children’s awareness on sexuality protection; more access to education; reducing poverty rate; creating counseling programs for children who would likely to be brides for any reasons; reduce racism
More education, kids should be sent to school instead of married off at a young age. Better law enforcement. Educate the parents as well.

Education; laws prohibiting it and stricter enforcement of the laws

More control and increased awareness about child trafficking and rape.
Refuse marriages of children, forcibly separate couples, arrest whoever presides over the marriage, put posters and create a propaganda/publicity campaign wherever there are child marriages to stop it. increased awareness, especially in the U.S. – many ppl seem to know about child brides in other countries but don’t realize it happens here too! increased education
Higher monitorization of these issues and more organizations/funding put in place to prevent this issue in the future.
Stricter education and repealing of archaic religious loopholes. Teaching girls their rights
Human Rights organizations need to step in as it’s a human rights issue


Protesters chant outside the State House during a rally to end child marriage and set the minimum age at 18 in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Thankfully, as more and more measures are being passed, like New York making marriage under 17 illegal no matter the situation,  the number of children getting married is decreasing, from 23,583 in 2000 to 9,247 in 2010. However, it is clear that we still need to take greater measures in protecting minors from being forced or coerced into marriages where they are at a substantial risk of violence and sexual assault, as well as lifelong mental scars. Jeanne Smoot, who is an attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization offering legal services for women and girls fleeing violence advocates for the banning of marriage for all minors, regardless of any factors allowing it such as parental consent. Child marriage is dangerous because it removes protection for the victims, as advocates note that rarely does the law charge an adult with statutory rape if he or she is married to a minor. Smoot adds “ The same acts that would be statutory rape outside of marriage are made lawful within,” – an idea which is horrific to think about, especially as we have such great awareness nowadays of abuse these victims feel, which should allow officials to increase protection of these vulnerable minors. Undoubtedly, the US is far ahead of the developing world where 1 in 9 women are married before the age of 15 and 1 in 3 are married before the age of 18, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t work to change the situation. We must act now, as the forecast is that by 2050 over 1.2 billion women will be married as children, a shocking number not even forecasting the men married as children. The US should not be part of that statistic and hopefully with a growing movement of awareness, education, and availability of resources the US will be able to reduce the number of annual child marriages to zero.


Some final opinions on child marriage by my survey’s participants.

it’s wrong (2)

depending on the circumstances it isn’t always a bad thing, that being said I don’t agree with people with such little life experience being able to marry

Highly illegal and traumatizing for the child brides involved

As marriage is still a very binding status even in a country where divorce is legal, giving time for young people to experience the world and educate themselves before being able to marry is necessary.

Fuck the perverts that marry child brides. Driven by religious approval they rape and abuse. Fuck’em. There should be done a serious, regulated by law research on how many, when and where child brides are being married. Their families and ‘husbands’ should be put in jail.

Is this 2017 or 1817?

There’s not enough data to determine if child marriage is objectively good or bad, especially since the circumstances of child marriage can vary greatly. (LEDCs) Often marriage is a way to legitimize having children, so in countries with high infant mortality, often a woman must give birth early/as often as possible to ensure children’s survival- additionally, in LEDCs, children often serve as a parent’s pension- they are the ones taking care of their parents when they grow old, not personal savings. Having children is essential for most of the world, and so the marriage age is also lowered out of necessity. While child marriages are often portrayed negatively (for good reasons, especially in MEDCs), I would be wary of generalizing this issue and condemning child marriage in its entirety. It’s a complicated issue.

Probably a bad thing generally


This is in some ways a cultural issue, and it is difficult for the US to project its views/positions onto the rest of the world, even if we think the US view is superior.

Whatever can be done to give child brides a voice, and to protect children’s rights at all costs.

They all end in divorce anyway

I feel as if it’s an underrated topic that people think about less than other issues and that it should be discussed more

Sad, unfair, cruel

After doing this survey, it is clear to me that I know very little about this issue.

It should not happen and how the USA could still not have a federal law IN place is disgusting.

I’ve honestly never thought it still occurred

Child marriage is organized pedophilia

It should be illegal

If they are getting married because of their own personal religious beliefs and it is a consenting arrangement then I do not see any wrong in that

I think we think about child brides as something from the past (in the US at least) but I know that it is still a very prominent issue in many countries and should be prevented until the child is of an age to make a conscious decision on their own about what they want for their lives.

TOPSHOT – A young actress plays the role of Giorgia, 10, forced to marry Paolo, 47, during a happening organized by Amnesty International to denounce child marriage, on October 27, 2016, in Rome. / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)




Link to the Survey


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