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Girls & Women

The Actual Number of Child Marriages in the US Is Staggering

The number of recent child marriages in the United States may surprise you.

While thought to be rare in the US, new data shows that more than 207,000 children under age 18 were married between 2000 and 2015, according to a Frontline report.   

Of those child marriages, 87% involved girls ages 16 and 17. Yet in Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee, some girls were as young as 10 years old when they professed their marriage vows. 

For three 10-year-old girls who were married in 2001 in Tennessee, each married a man over twice her age. And one girl married a man who was 31, more than three times her age, according to Frontline.  

The new report, which included data from 41 states, found that 86% of minors married adults who were 19 or in their early 20s. Frontline also found one case in Alabama where a girl who was 14 married a man who was 74. The state later raised the legal minimum marriage age to 16 in 2003.  

Some states that have had particularly young child marriages recently, including Texas, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, have all seen efforts to toughen child marriage laws. 

Read More: 5 Countries With the Highest Numbers of Child Marriages

However, Texas was the only state of the three to pass legislation ending child marriage. A bill in New Hampshire did not pass in the Senate and Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill which did pass in both Houses in New Jersey. Christie said the bill did not respect the cultural and religious practices of residents in the state. 

While marriage for children under age 15 is rare (only 5% of the 207,468 child marriages studied) they still accounted for more than 1,000 marriages in the US, the report stated. 

The biggest concern for minors younger than 16, a common age of sexual consent, is that child marriage legalizes statutory rape, according to Jeanne Smoot, an attorney with the Tahari Justice Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to girls and women who are victims of violence. 

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“The same acts that would be statutory rape outside of marriage are made lawful within,” Smoot told Frontline. 

Mary Beth Walz, a Democratic representative in New Hampshire, supported a bill proposing to ban child marriage in March. 

“They cannot vote. They can’t sign a contract. They can’t sign a lease on an apartment. They can’t buy a car. They can’t buy a house. They can’t open a bank account. They couldn’t even toast themselves at their own wedding,” she said. “We do not treat children as adults when they’re under the age of 18,” she said

Read More: New York Finally Outlawed Child Marriage

But Phyllida Burlingame, of the American Civil Liberties Union of California, told Frontline that she believes legally changing the law is not likely to prevent relationships between minors from happening and that not being married could make social services harder for young women to access. 

And while states consider whether or not to raise the legal age of marriage to 18, there is good news: child marriage is on the decline in the US. 

The number of child marriages in the US decreased 61% from 23,583 in 2000 to 9,427 in 2010, according to Frontline

However, child marriage is not on the decline for all girls worldwide.  

In conflict regions, like Syria, child marriage is spiking for young girls, according to Girls Not Brides, an advocacy organization working to halt child marriage. 

In Jordan, child marriage increased from 12% to 32% between 2011 and 2014, and in 2016, 41% of displaced Syrian girls were married before 18 in the country. 

Global Citizen, in partnership with CHIME FOR CHANGE, campaigns to close legal loopholes and discriminatory laws against girls and women through our #LeveltheLaw campaign. 

But one thing girls who marry young in the US and Syria have in common is that their marriages are often a result of poverty. 

“Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families, don’t get married young,” Nicholas Syrett, author of “American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States” told Frontline. “This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”

And although New Jersey and New Hampshire turned down bans on child marriage this year, Texas and New York passed landmark laws to raise the minimum age to 18, with exceptions for minors age 17. 

Even more hopeful, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are considering completely raising the age of marriage to 18, with no loopholes at all.