Child marriage is still legal in most parts of the United States. Here’s why.

History at a glance

  • According to Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization that works to support women and girls in forced marriages, approximately 300,000 children and adolescents were legally married in the United States between 2000 and 2018.

At the age of 14, Genevieve Meyer began spending time with a neighbor to get a break from her hectic family life.

Her relationship with the neighbor, a 42-year-old divorced father of two, soon turned sexual. Meyer’s mother eventually found out and called the police.

But she believed that Meyer had “ruined this man’s life” by seducing him, according to Meyer, and the neighbor and Meyer’s mother eventually decided that he and the teenager would marry so that any criminal charges would be dropped.

In return, Meyer’s mother would receive a share of the profits from the neighbor’s tree-cutting business.

Meyer, now 43, was shocked when her mother told her about the deal.

“My immediate reaction was that 14-year-olds don’t get married,” Meyer said. “But I was wrong.”

Thousands of children and teenagers are legally married in the United States each year: nearly 300,000 minors were reported to have married between 2000 and 2018 a study from 2021 by Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization that helps women and girls escape forced marriages.

The nonprofit calculated these numbers using the marriage certificate Data.

Most of these minors were 16 and 17 years old at the time of their marriage, but children as young as ten were reportedly also forced into marriage Finally unleashed.

Girls are far more likely than boys to marry before the age of 18. Of all minors who married between 2000 and 2018, 86 percent were girls and 14 percent were boys, the nonprofit said. Most of these girls married adult men.

“This happens every day,” said Fraidy Reiss of Unchained at Last. “And some of the reasons are because of these outdated, archaic and dangerous laws that encourage this.”

Until 2017, getting married before the age of 18 was legal in all 50 states. Since then, 10 states have passed laws banning the practice.

In 2018 Delaware passed a law raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, becoming the first state to ban child marriage.

It followed shortly afterwards New Jerseyand since then Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and most recently Michigan We have also raised the minimum age for marriage to 18.

However, more than half of US states still allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent Tahirih Justice Centera non-profit organization that works to protect women and girls exposed to gender-based violence.

Additionally, 10 states allow children under 16 to marry with court approval, the Center said, while four states lower the minimum age for marriage if a girl is pregnant.

And eight states — including California and Washington — have no minimum age limit for marriage, according to the center.

Legal loopholes at the federal level also allow child marriages to continue.

For example, there is no minimum age to apply for a foreign spouse or fiancé visa US State Department.

As a result, Reiss said, many young girls in the United States are being used to help older men living abroad apply for visas.

And although some states have passed laws making it more difficult for minors to marry, passing these laws can be challenging.

Legislation banning child marriage has caused problems in some states due to backlash from both conservative and progressive voices.

At the beginning of the year, a draft law was passed that would have banned minors from marrying West Virginia was rejected by Republicans in the state Senate. Some opponents of the bill argued that teenage marriage is part of West Virginia’s culture.

West Virginia Senator Mike Stuart (right) was among those who voted against the bill last spring. He said his mother married when he was 16 and “six months later I came along. “I’m the luckiest person in the world,” according to The Associated Press.

Republican from WyomingMeanwhile, they opposed state legislation raising the minimum marriage age to 16 because they believed it could restrict parental rights and religious freedom.

Then Governor of New Jersey in 2017 Chris Christie (R) also vetoed a bill banning marriage for those under 18 in the state because “it would conflict with religious customs.”

“There is some threat to religious freedom,” Ann Warner, interim CEO and president of the International Center for Research on Women, said of efforts to ban minors from legally marrying.

However, she resisted this perception. “We are talking about human rights, and human rights are not in conflict with religious freedom,” she argued.

In contrast, in California there is more resistance to setting a minimum age for marriage progressive groupsincluding Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center.

These groups have claimed that imposing a minimum age limit for marriage could lead to a restriction of constitutional or reproductive rights.

In 2017, the ACLU wrote in a letter opposing a California bill banning child marriage that the legislation “unnecessarily and unreasonably interferes with the fundamental rights of marriage when reasonable grounds exist,” according to the statement to PBS.

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California spokeswoman Jennifer Wonnacott said in a statement to The Hill that the organization is “strongly committed to protecting youth from abuse of all kinds and protecting their rights.”

“We have supported previous efforts to create protections against exploitation while working with authors to ensure that these protections do not compromise the reproductive rights of minors and their ability to decide what is best for them, their health and their lives affect,” she added.

Warner also rejected this argument, arguing that underage marriages were not an exercise of young people’s rights, but rather were used as an excuse to abuse and control children.

Minors need parental consent or court permission to marry, and often children’s voices are not heard when they stand before a court clerk or county registrar to get married, she said.

“This is not a juvenile right exercised with enthusiasm by young people,” Warner said. “This is a loophole in the law that is being used to exploit young people under the guise of marriage.”

This was the case with Meyer, who said her mother gave her consent by signing what “looked like a consent form” and gave it to her daughter’s future husband.

Meyer and her former husband, who eventually divorced when she was 22, were married at a courthouse in Jackson, Miss., when most of the staff were on their lunch break, she said.

She doesn’t remember signing a marriage certificate, but has a copy of it.

“It has my little kid’s signature on it, so I have to have it at some point,” she said.

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