Thousands of children every year are married in the United States, most of them girls wedding older men, in a worrying trend that some advocates say creates a prisonlike environment that leaves children with little recourse to change their situations.
Child marriage is legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Half of all states have no minimum age at which a child can be married.
Legislators in several states are looking to change this with measures setting a minimum age for obtaining a marriage license.
“You tend to think that these are problems that happen in other parts of the world, and then you realize that we have a problem here,” said Michelle Ugenti-Rita, an Arizona state representative who has introduced legislation to bar marriage for those under 16.
Nearly 250,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 entered into a marriage between 2000 and 2015, according to data collected by Unchained At Last, a group that advocates for a minimum marriage age. An investigation by Frontline found that about a thousand 14-year olds in the United States were married during that span. Ten people who obtained marriage licenses were just 12 years old.
Minors who are married often feel forced into wedlock.
Some girls get married after becoming pregnant, while others are forced by their parents into arranged unions.
Once in wedlock, those who want to escape often have few options; only a handful of domestic violence shelters will take a minor, because of liability issues, and few children have the resources to hire a lawyer. In many states, someone who aids a minor leaving home can be charged with a crime.
“If you leave home, you’re typically considered a runaway. Police will track you and drag you home,” said Fraidy Reiss, who runs Unchained At Last. “Right now, child marriage is a significant problem across the Untied States. It’s a human rights abuse, according to the State Department.”
Weiss — herself a survivor of forced marriage — wants states to prohibit marriages before the age of 18, without exceptions. Legislators in a handful of states have introduced versions of model legislation her group has written. But almost invariably, she said, those bills are amended on the floor or changed in backroom negotiations to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to get married.
“They get watered down, voted down. We have not yet seen a single state eliminate child marriage,” Reiss said. “This to me looks like legislators who want to take credit for doing something good without actually doing something.”
The governors of New York, Connecticut and Texas have all signed laws raising the minimum age to marry in the last year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) will do so soon, after his legislature passed a bill to raise the minimum age to 17 last week.
Kentucky legislators on Friday passed their own measure to raise the marriage age to 18, though 17-year-olds could get married with parental consent.
In Arizona, Ugenti-Rita’s bill originally set the marriage age at 18. But she accepted an amendment to lower the age to 16, at the urging of legislators whose opposition would have doomed her bill.
The Tennessee state House killed, and then revived, a bill to establish 17 as the legal marriage age last week. Republican leaders bowed to public outrage after the measure initially died, ostensibly because it would have interfered with a lawsuit challenging the legality of same-sex marriages.
Legislators in Alaska, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington have considered revising their marriage laws. The Washington measure died when the legislature ended their session last week, though others remain under consideration.
A Delaware state representative introduced a new version of the bill last week. A version of the bill in Massachusetts died in February.
Some opponents of the bills have said that children might be married for religious reasons, or because they had gotten pregnant.
Children who are forced or choose to marry before the age of 18 are highly susceptible to negative economic and life outcomes, Reiss said. They are much more likely to drop out of high school, and they have higher instances of cancer, stroke and heart attack than peers who get married later in life.
“I think age plays a big part in someone’s capacity to understand the magnitude of the decisions they make, and marriage is no exception to that,” Ugenti-Rita said. “I think it’s very reasonable to say 18 and older should be when you’re able to get married. We regulate a lot of behaviors for minors. Cigarettes, lottery tickets, you can’t vote until you’re 18, you can’t drink until you’re 21, you can’t drive until you’re 16, but you can get married?”
The amendments to lower the minimum age to 16 or 17 can help protect outliers, like the few hundred extremely young children who are married. But Reiss said those bills miss the most significant population of at-risk children, those girls who are between 16 and 17.
“Those are the children at the highest risk,” Reiss said. “Those are the ones most likely to be abused.”