Child Marriage Is Still Legal, And It’s Closer To Home Than You Think

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The social issue of child marriage isn’t talked about enough in the world today. Nearly every country in this world has a high number of child marriages. While child marriage is not explicitly legal in the majority of countries, few people do anything to stop them. Child marriage is an issue of backwards traditions, sexism, and domestic abuse that will end in a legacy of pain and trauma for the children.


What is Child Marriage? 

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Child marriage is exactly what it sounds like: Any formal marriage or informal union between a child (someone who is younger than 18 years old) and another child or an adult.  

The majority of child marriages deal with young girls marrying adult men. While one might assume that the average age of child marriages starts at around 15 years old and once the girl is well past puberty, some girls as young as 7 years old are forced into marriage

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720 million girls are married before they are 18, while 156 million boys are married before they legally become adults. Although both numbers are horrific, the threat of child marriage is much more prevalent for girls than boys.

According to Unchained at Last, between the years 2000 – 2018, nearly 300,000 children as young as 10 years old were married in the United States. The majority of these marriages were between girls and adult men. Globally about 21% of girls are married before they turn 18. Twelve million girls are married each year and 650 million females alive today were married when they were children. The occurrence of child marriage for boys is one sixth of that among girls. 

I know those are a lot of big numbers and it can be confusing, so let me continue to break this horror down.

Child Marriage in the United States

The legality of child marriages in the United States is absolutely shocking. In the fifty United States, forty six of them allow child marriages. This is the United States. As Americans, we can’t brush off child marriage as something that happens far away from us. This practice is legal here. The only states where child marriages are illegal are New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. 

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Nearly every state in the U. S. allows children to get married at any age as long as they have their parents’ or guardians’ consent. Some states only require one of four of the guardians’ consent as well. 

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Child marriage is classified as a human rights abuse by the U.S. State Department. Child marriage not only takes away the child’s right to choose a partner, but also does nothing to benefit the child. It robs children of their agency and transfers their voice from their parents to their new spouse. The child is also more vulnerable to violence, discrimination and abuse, and economic freedom in a child marriage. 

Child Marriage From a Global Perspective

While child marriage is a huge domestic problem, the issue is more prevalent in poorer parts of the world. 37% of females in sub-Saharan Africa are married before they turn 18 years old. The statistics are as follows: 76% of females are married before their 18th birthday in Niger, 68% in the Central African Republic, and 67% in Chad. 

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South Asia houses 40% of the world’s child brides due to its large population. One third of the global total of child brides are in India alone. More than 15 million children are married in India and Bangladesh follows with more than 4 million. 

There are only a few countries in the world that don’t have a minimum age for marriage. The problem is that many people will ignore the laws that are there. For example, child marriage in Bangledesh is illegal but the laws are rarely inforced. 

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Another element that makes child marriage so prevalent even where it’s illegal is parental permission. Child marriage is legal as long as the child’s parents are signing them off. This happens frequently, whether due to financial disability or power struggles. 

In some cultures, child marriage is traditional. Once a girl begins menstruation, she is a “woman” and thus ready for marriage. Other reasons for adolescent marriage could be to secure unions among family or tribes. Another common reason for child marriage is if the girl had become pregnant out of wedlock and risks having her honor ruined or being shamed. 

The High Frequency of Child Marriages 

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In many countries and regions, females cannot earn a wage and are considered financial burdens. A way for families to make amends to that problem is by selling them off or simply giving them away so another person (their spouse) will take care of them. The expense of a dowry can be lower in countries that expect the female’s family to pay. Likewise, the groom’s family often pays more if his future spouse is younger and thus more desirable. 

The majority of child marriages occur in impoverished areas. The child’s parents are usually the ones initiating and organizing the union. While this is heartbreaking, many parents see the opportunity of marrying their child off to someone wealthier than they as an opportunity for their child. 

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Many parents believe that in marrying their daughter off to good and respectable families, they are ensuring their daughter’s safety and financial success. Due to the union, there will be no chance of premarital sex, unplanned pregnancies outside of marriage, rape, or HIV. Sadly, that is not the case.

The Problems of Child Marriages

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Unicef reports that girls who are married before they turn 18 years old are more likely to leave school and experience domestic violence. If teenagers get pregnant, they are more likely to die due to complications in their pregnancies. According to the International Women’s Health Coalition, girls under 15 years old are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties and the babies are 50% more likely to die if the girl is under 18 years old. 

The reason for dangerous childbirth is due to obstructed labor meaning the baby doesn’t exit through the pelvis during childbirth. If the girl is too small and her bones are not done growing, that will increase the chance of an obstructed labor. The baby might get physically blocked or lose oxygen if that’s the case. Another reason that pregnancies in young girls so often fail is due to the higher risk that young girls have of contracting HIV. 

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The infant mortality rate is 60% higher if the mother is younger than 18. The mother’s nutrition, emotional immaturity, lack of access to reproductive services, and higher risks of infections and diseases also contributes to the baby’s chance of survival. 

While it might be assumed that if the child has one sexual partner for his or her entire life the risk of HIV or AIDS is lessened, that’s not necessarily the case. Married girls in Kenya are 50% more likely to become infected with HIV than unmarried girls. Zambia sees 59% of married girls at a higher risk and Uganda sees 89% of girls at risk. 

The higher risk of STDs is due to the frequency of unprotected intercourse with their husbands. The girls are wanted to reproduce, so they are often forced to have sex with their husbands until they get pregnant. Child marriages do not emphasize sex as a bonding or loving thing, but rather a means to reproduce. Therefore, the sex will rarely be protected, resulting in higher risks of HIV. 

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While this may be the first sexual partner a girl will ever have, the older man in the unions most likely had a number of sexual relations before his wife and he will bring those diseases to her. More than 10% of the population in the Central African Republic is infected with HIV and the numbers only grow as more child marriages are formed. 

Once the girl is married to an older man, she is expected to provide for him. No matter her age the girl must assume the job of wife, domestic worker, sexual pleaser, and eventually mother. The girls are often taken out of their homes and villages and brought to a bigger city. Their move increases isolation and usually the girls have nothing in common with their spouse. Child marriage is not about creating a loving and understanding bond, but instead creating financial gain for the child’s parents and ensuring that the man’s legacy will be carried on

Not only are child marriages taxing on the child’s brain and emotional stability, but the child also loses his or her innocence rather quickly. Once a marriage is official and enacted, the child can no longer play with friends or spend time being a kid. Their duties are laid out for them in the form of the legal marriage document and they must adhere to their new role in their household.

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What Do You Do With All Of This Gross Information? 

Know that there is hope. In the past decade, 25 million child marriages have been prevented. South Asia has seen the largest decline in child marriages going from 49% to 30%. That means that while 1 in 4 girls were subject to child marriage a decade ago, that number has fallen (even if slightly) to 1 in 5.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals has called for action that will end this human rights violation by the year 2030.

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How Do We End Child Marriage?

There are a million little things everyone can do to end child marriage, but it will take a large scale of people globally to do this. There are organizations like Girls Not Brides that work to end child marriages and support child brides. Unicef also has a donation page that allows you to give money for the cause. You can work domestically by calling  or emailing your local members of congress and asking them to make child marriage illegal in the U. S. You can also join the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the U.S and urge others to do the same. 

The biggest thing anyone can do to spark change is becoming educated about this problem and speak out against it wherever you can. This is both a global and a domestic problem, but it should be neither. Look to see what you can do in order to lessen the number of those affected by this horrific human rights issue.

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How are you fighting child marriage? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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