Child marriage isn't marriage and 'nearly 18' isn't 18 years old

Child marriage isn't marriage and 'nearly 18' isn't 18 years old
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Why have you abandoned the 17-year-old girls?

I ask this to the many state legislators across the United States who have insisted over the last couple of years — since I helped launch a national movement to end child marriage in America — that marriage at age 17 is somehow not “child marriage.”

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Child marriage is a significant problem in the U.S. Marriage before 18 is legal in all 50 U.S. states, and it is happening at an alarming rate. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 248,000 children, some as young 12, were married in the U.S., according to marriage-license data compiled and analyzed by Unchained At Last, the nonprofit I founded to help women and girls in the U.S. to escape forced marriages.

Almost all the children were girls wed to adult men. And the majority of them were age 17.

Sure, 17 is “nearly 18,” as many legislators point out. But legislators keep ignoring the crucial difference between “nearly 18” and 18. In most U.S. states, one becomes a legal adult the day one turns 18, not a moment before.

The fact is, marriage even one day before legal adulthood is child marriage and can too easily be or become a forced marriage. Whether a child is 8 or “nearly 18,” she or he cannot take basic steps to refuse an impending forced marriage or to get out of an abusive or unwanted marriage.

An 18-year-old who wants out of a marriage, before or after the marriage takes place, can open the front door and leave — or escape out a window, if she or he is being held against her or his will, as often happens with Unchained clients. An 18-year-old can seek safety in a domestic violence shelter and retain an attorney to help with any legal needs, such as seeking a protective order or filing for divorce.

Someone “nearly 18” cannot easily take any of those steps.

A 17-year-old who leaves home, through the front door or a window, typically is viewed as a runaway. The police will search for the 17-year-old and take her or him back home. Advocates from Unchained or other organizations who helped the 17-year-old could face criminal charges.

If the 17-year-old manages to get to a domestic violence shelter, she or he will not find safety there. Shelters across the U.S. cannot or will not accept children who are “nearly 18.” Not even a day before their 18th birthday, as one shelter told me when I was trying desperately to help a 17-year-old girl flee an impending forced marriage.

Contracts with children, including retainer agreements with attorneys, generally are voidable. Unchained often gets calls from panic-stricken 17-year-old girls who have been turned down for representation by every attorney they approached.

Perhaps most significantly, one typically must be 18, not “nearly 18,” to bring a legal action in one’s own name. In many U.S. states, a child can legally marry but cannot independently file for divorce or annulment. Imagine the hellish trap this creates for those who are “nearly 18.”

Yet, while many states have introduced the simple, commonsense legislation I helped to write to eliminate all marriage before 18, without exceptions, legislators in state after state have refused to approve such bills. Instead, legislators in blue and red states including New York, Connecticut, Virginia, Kentucky, Texas and Florida have agreed child marriage should end – just not for those who are “nearly 18.” Not for 17-year-olds and, in some of those states, 16-year-olds.

Not the children at the greatest risk of child marriage, who are nearly powerless to prevent a forced marriage or, even if they enter a marriage willingly, to leave it if they change their minds.

For some legislators, the reluctance to end all child marriage may be based on sexism, especially if the case involves a 17-year-old who gets pregnant. A pregnant teenage girl who marries, however, is more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability than a pregnant teenage girl who stays single.

Other legislators have expressed concern about taking away a 17-year-old’s supposed right to marry. However, 17-year-olds never had the “right” to marry: All states require a parent and/or a judge to enter a child into marriage before her or his 18th birthday. Further, giving children the “right” to enter into a serious legal contract before they have the legal rights necessary to safely navigate that contract is laying for them a nightmarish trap, not bestowing upon them a romantic gift.

Many legislators seem unaware of the catastrophic harms child marriage causes. Forced or not, marriage before 18 – including at 17 – bring devastating, lifelong repercussions for girls. Women and girls in the U.S. who were married at 17 are 50 percent less likely to finish high school and four times less likely to finish college. They are significantly more likely to end up in poverty. They face a 23 percent greater risk of serious health conditions, including heart attack, cancer, diabetes, stroke than women who married between 19 and 25, and an increased risk of various psychiatric disorders. A global study showed they are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouse than if they waited to marry at 21 or older.

In fact, the U.S. State Department has called marriage before 18 a “human rights abuse.”

Marriage at 18 is a right. Marriage at “nearly 18” is a human-rights abuse that traps girls and destroys their lives. Why can’t legislators see the difference?

Fraidy Reiss is a forced-marriage survivor and the founder of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls in the United States to escape forced marriages and works to end forced and child marriage in America.