posted at 3:31 pm on February 12, 2017 by Jazz Shaw
There’s an interesting article from Fraidy Reiss in the Washington Post this week dealing with the subject of child brides in the United States. She is the founder and Executive Director of a group named Unchained at Last. The group is working to alter laws across the states making it illegal (or at least significantly harder) for children under the age of 18 to legally wed. This problem doesn’t draw a lot of attention, particularly when you’re talking about young women around the age of 17, but the author notes that there are still a number of disturbing instances of children walking down the aisle as young as 12 or even before. (Washington Post)
While most states set 18 as the minimum marriage age, exceptions in every state allow children younger than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry.
Unchained At Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States, spent the past year collecting marriage license data from 2000 to 2010, the most recent year for which most states were able to provide information. We learned that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older. Twelve states and the District of Columbia were unable to provide information on how many children had married there in that decade. Based on the correlation we identified between state population and child marriage, we estimated that the total number of children wed in America between 2000 and 2010 was nearly 248,000.
This is a really touchy subject whether you’re coming at it from a conservative, libertarian or liberal perspective. On the one hand, people such as myself have a distinct problem with the idea of the government at any level getting involved with the subject of marriage. This is particularly true when it comes to questions such as demanding licenses and charging taxes before bestowing Uncle Sam’s permission for two consenting adults to engage in a private ceremony. But even when I’ve argued against such policies I have allowed for the reality that marriage should never be used as a shield for pedophiles to engage in socially sanctioned abuse of minors.
One other aspect of conservative doctrine, however, flies directly in the face of that argument. First of all, it is the business of the states to determine the minimum age of consent. Beyond that, adults (at whatever age line is eventually drawn) should be left to make their own decisions in life and be held responsible for dealing with the consequences. It’s the combination of these two questions which makes this such a difficult topic to wrestle to the ground.
When a child is being forced in whatever fashion to enter into marriage by parents, other family members or their church, this is unilaterally a bad thing. Proving that to be the case however, is exceedingly difficult and drags us into gray areas of the law which are tricky to navigate. Attempting to flatly declare that no one under the age of 18 should be allowed to marry is ill advised. With many decades of experience under my belt I will be the first to admit that I strongly believe marrying a bit later in life after one has achieved some additional level of both maturity and financial security is far preferable. But, as the saying goes, sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants and young people cannot always be saved from their own reckless impulses. Further, there have been many marriages begun in an early age which go on to last the distance. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on situations where an unintended pregnancy at an early age sometimes leads to nuptials taking place before they might have otherwise. Statistically those marriages have been shown to have a lower likelihood of lasting but some still do. And really, who are we to judge?
Drawing the line between child abuse and a perhaps inadvisable wedding between young people who may stand a chance at happiness is always going to be difficult. I’d be happy to look at any proposed legislation which could prevent the former providing it doesn’t broadly criminalize the latter.