How Much Do You Know About Child Marriage in the United States?
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As a Junior girl at Head Royce, I have been thinking a lot about college. What kind of schools do I like? Where in the country do I want to be? I’ve thought about my future career. I will have more educational opportunities after high school and then economic opportunities. I know that my future is ahead of me. For too many children, especially girls, their futures and their childhoods are cut short by child marriage. Girls become wives instead of scholars or earners. They may face domestic abuse and rape. When I picture my future, it involves none of this and no one’s future should.
Child Marriage Today
Today over 200,000 children have married in the last 15 years (Baynes); this figure excludes data from California, Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia (“Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers.”). Eighty seven percent of these children are girls; eighty six percent of child spouses married adults (“Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers.”). These young brides and grooms are 3 times more likely to experience domestic abuse than older spouses (Yakupitiyage). Children who marry are often stripped of educational and economic opportunities, having the responsibilities of marriage placed on them (Reiss). If a child is forced to marry, they have essentially been forced into a contract that allows them to be raped repeatedly. In fact, in Virginia, 90% of the child marriage cases could be statutory rape cases (Lemmon). In US foreign policy, as the State Department said, child marriage is a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood”(Yakupitiyage). Yet, within the borders of the United States, child marriage continues with little more than a second thought.
For a video showing people’s reactions to a staged child marriage, click on the link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/how-people-reacted-to-the-sight-of-a-child-bride-in-new-yorks-time-square-a6895066.html
Marriage is an ancient construct. In Roman times, marriage was typically decided between two families, leaving decisions around appropriate ages to marry up to them. The onset of puberty (12 for girls and 14 for boys) was the traditional age minimum for marriage, but this was simply a guideline (Bullough). In medieval Europe, marriage served two purposes: to transfer property and to control sex. Any existing marriage laws, including when consent to marriage could be given (age 7 in England), could be bent when property or family alliances were at stake. For example, in 16th Century England, a two year old married a three year old. Obviously, neither child could have consented to marriage, and most likely this was a profitable union not a sexual one (Bullough). In order to effectively control sexual activity, individuals married when they were sexually mature, similar to the Roman customs. Girls reached sexual maturity earlier than boys so they could be married earlier. (“Sex and Spouses”).
Naturally, when colonists travelled to North America from Britain, their principles around marriage followed (Bullough). Child marriage was relatively common in the colonial and early state days. One common trend among early state laws is that girls were often allowed to marry earlier than boys, by an average of 3 years (Syrett, 17). Today the majority of child marriages are young girls to older boys or men (Reiss). This phenomenon stems from coverture, a key principle in English Common Law. Coverture laws stated that a woman lost her legal rights when she married. The wife and the husband were one legal unit, the husband having the power over his wife (“Coverture”). These coverture laws cemented marriage gender roles. Wives were the responsibility of the husband who generated the income. In order to support his family, the husband had to be old enough to inherit or have a job. On the other hand, women were supported by their husbands and thus, they could be very young. It was simply easier to marry as a young girl than a young boy. In the southern colonies, young brides were necessary. The majority of colonists in the Southern colonies were men who came to work. Women were scarce and in order to keep the population up, young brides were often taken (Syrett, 17). Additionally, almost all earlier state laws allowed the parents to decide when marriage was appropriate; chronological age was not emphasized (Syrett, 18). Today, girls still marry in much higher numbers than boys do, and American marriage laws still echo the principle of parental consent.
In Antebellum America, the pre Civil War era, child marriage was neither uncommon nor thought of as unusual. By this time states had passed laws regulating child marriage, but the people of the day did not think that teenagers were unfit for marriage. These beliefs and the fact that the laws were infrequently enforced meant that child marriage continued. Yet there were clear regional differences in the numbers of child marriage. It was so common in Kentucky and South Carolina that “around 40 percent of all marriages contracted in 1856 and 1857 were by girls under twenty” (Syrett 43). In contrast, around twenty four percent of marriages in the Northeast were girls marrying under age twenty. In this industrialized region, ideas about protecting childhood were most prevalent and affected the practice of child marriage (Syrett 44). Later in the nineteenth century, child marriages started to make the newspapers, a clear sign that child marriage was starting to be questioned. Consent to sex laws was examined in the United States in the late nineteenth century after a sex ring involving young girls was discovered in England. In the U.S., girls could consent to sex at age ten. Activists started ‘purity campaigns’ to raises the consent age. These campaigns led to the first laws protecting childhood but not children in marriage; the consent to sex laws excluded sex within marriage (Syrett 125). In the nineteenth century, a crucial step in preventing child marriage was made: ideas emerged that childhood was something to be protected and children are not suited for marriage.
With the growth of the women’s rights movement in the 1920s, studies about child marriage were conducted and the debate about raising marriage age minimums began. In 1925, a New York Times newspaper article was published discussing a committee in New York City investigating child marriage and raising the minimum marriage age. The committee interviewed teachers in New York City who stated that a significant number of children were excused from school because of marriage. Escaping “the Compulsory School and Child Labor Laws” was a primary reason for marrying early, the committee discovered (“Says Mother Forced Girl of 14 to Marry.”). Even in 1925, as the New York Times reported, child marriage clearly reduced opportunities. In another article of this era, child marriage was stated to be “injurious to the general health” (“Child Marriages Not Rare in Nation”). The article also discovered that “parental consent makes possible many marriages that would otherwise be impossible”(“Child Marriages Not Rare in Nation”). The discussion started around 1925 yet minors can still get married 93 years later.
The solution to child marriage is legislation banning marriage to minors. But, since marriage is controlled by the state, legislation would have to be passed in all 50 states. No exceptions, like parental or judicial consent, would be allowed. These exceptions are responsible for many of the child marriages today. Bills raising the marriage age to 18 have been proposed in a few states, such as New Jersey and New Hampshire (both failed). Passing this legislation in every state will be challenging but it would mean the end of child marriage and greater equality for girls. More things can be done besides (or in addition to) legislation. Girls Not Brides, an organization built to end child marriage globally, has a four point plan to accomplish this goal: “empower girls, mobilise communities and families, provide services, and establish and implement laws and policies” (“How Can We End”). Empowering girls includes education about their rights, mobilising communities focuses on shifting norms (away from strict gender roles), and high quality education and health clinics. These four points reach to the roots of child marriage no matter the country. The U.S. could focus on shifting norms in rural, tight-knit communities (where child marriage is most prevalent) and initiating legislation.
Baynes, Chris. “More than 200,000 Children Married in US over the Last 15 Years.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 8 July 2017, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/200000-children-married-us-15-years-child-marriage-child-brides-new-jersey-chris-christie-a7830266.html.
Bullough, Vern L. “Age of Consent.” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society, edited by Paula S. Fass, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 45-47. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3402800027/UHIC?u=headroyces&xid=8846f1ad. Accessed 19 Jan. 2018.
“Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers.” Child Marriage in America | FRONTLINE | PBS, apps.frontline.org/child-marriage-by-the-numbers/.
“Child Marriages Not Rare in Nation”. (1937, Feb 07). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/102040048?accountid=39972
Cokayne, Karen (2013-01-11). Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome. Routledge. p. 3.
“Coverture.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Oct. 2007, www.britannica.com/topic/coverture.
Lancaster, H. O. Expectations of Life: a Study in the Demography, Statistics, and
History of World Mortality. Springer-Verlag, 1990.
Lemmon, Gayle. “Child and Forced Marriage in the United States.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 15 Sept. 2016, www.cfr.org/blog/child-and-forced-marriage-united-states.
Reiss, Fraidy. “America’s Child-Marriage Problem.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/opinion/americas-child-marriage-problem.html.
“Says Mother Forced Girl of 14 to Marry.” The New York Times, 8 Mar. 1925.
“Sex and Spouses: Marriage, Pleasure and Consummation.” Decameron Web | Society,
Syrett, Nicholas L. American Child Bride: SYRETT, NICHOLAS L. AMERICAN CHILD BRIDE: a History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. University of North Carolina Press, UNIV OF NORTH CAROLINA PR, 2018.
Yakupitiyage, Tharanga. “The “Shocking” Reality of Child Marriage in the U.S.” Inter Press Service, Jun 08, 2017, Research Library Prep, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1907224888?accountid=39972.