An estimated 9,749 minors were listed on marriage license applications in North Carolina between 2000 and 2019, according to a new report.
The report, released by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) on Aug. 30, lists the state as the fourth-highest in the country for the number of child marriages, behind Texas, Florida, and Kentucky.
In most states, the minimum age for marriage in the United States is 18, but child marriage remains legal in other states across the country. An estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were married between 2000 and 2010, the Washington Post reported.
And in 10 states, there are no laws that specify an age where a child is considered too young to marry. In North Carolina, a child can get married at 16 with their parent or legal guardian’s permission — and at 14 by court order if they or their partner is pregnant or has given birth.
The ICRW report calls for changes to be made to prevent all marriages under the age of 18 and to ensure that pregnancy and parental consent are not considered viable exceptions.
In North Carolina, the legal definition of statutory rape encompasses intercourse with someone aged 15 or younger if the age gap between the parties is four years or more. The ICRW report found that approximately 93% of marriage applications were for a marriage between a minor and an adult, meaning some of the marriages would legally be considered statutory rape.
The largest recorded age gap on a marriage application in the state was between a 57-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl.
The impacts of child marriage on women and girls can be dire and lifelong. Around the world, child marriage has been shown to interrupt education and increase girls’ likelihood of living in poverty and experiencing domestic abuse. It can also lead to having children early and cause harm to their mental health.
One study found a link between early marriage and poverty and suggests that child marriage leads to the "feminization of poverty" by “preventing girls from attaining their full potential in terms of developing their social capabilities.”
The ICRW report warned that many people in North Carolina, including child brides themselves, are not aware that a married child is legally emancipated and should have all the same rights and responsibilities as adults. In some states, a married child is still legally considered a child.
This lack of information can jeopardize young girls’ access to human rights and their resources, including domestic abuse shelters, education, and health care.
In another study, the ICRW found that girls in the US who marry before they are 19 are 50% more likely to drop out of high school in comparison to unmarried girls. They are also four times less likely to complete college.
Without access to education, girls do not have the resources or life skills to be independent. Education has been linked to higher incomes and the ability to protect oneself from abuse.
The study also found that children who marry before they are 16 are 31% more likely to live in poverty.
These inequalities create environments that make it much harder for girls to survive and thrive, and often exacerbate existing power imbalances between child brides and their adult partners.
In 2019, 90% of women participating in a survey on child marriages conducted by ICRW reported physical, sexual, or emotional abuse by their husbands during their marriage.
These statistics highlight why ICRW also found that 43% of child brides develop major depressive disorders during their marriages.
Child marriage is a global issue and the United Nations has reported that 1 in 5 girls around the world is married before turning 18.
Global Citizen, UNICEF USA, and other organizations are part of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States. If you want to learn more about fighting child marriage, visit www.endchildmarriageus.org.
UPDATE, Sept. 3, 6:30 p.m ET: This story has been updated for clarifications and to correct the outdated statistic that 27 states did not specify a minimum age for marriage; currently, 10 states do not specify a minimum age.