At a distance, the US appears to have a minimum marriage age of 18. But look more closely, state by state, and it becomes clear that the US is one of 117 countries where children can marry legally.
In Florida, a child age 16 or younger is married every few days. Not often, but occasionally, that child is as young as 11. That was the case for Sherry Johnson, who is now an activist working to end child marriage in the US.
At 11 years old, Johnson was married to a man nine years her senior, she told the New York Times in a story published last week.
The marriage followed years in which she was raped multiple times by two different men in her church, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child at the age of 10, she told Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
Johnson said that her parents coerced her into marrying one of her rapists, a 20-year-old man, when child services began to conduct an investigation that involved her family and the conservative Pentecostal church near Tampa, Florida that they attended.
Her parents didn’t want the church, or her family to be involved in “a messy criminal” suit she told the New York Times, so they decided to have her married.
Johnson said that her parents were turned down by a judge in Tampa, but travelled to Pinellas County, where a judge approved her marriage.
“What we want is for you to get married,” the judge told her, according to her description.
Take Action: Stand With Sonita. End Child Marriage.
“They took the handcuffs from handcuffing him, to handcuffing me, by marrying me without me knowing what I was doing,” she said.
And so instead of receiving child services support, Johnson became a married mother, with a child to support.
Johnson gave birth to eight more children, she said. But since becoming a child bride and child mother, she has worked hard to rise above her circumstances. She is now the author of a book, "Forgiving the Unforgiveable," about her traumatic experience, a businesswoman, and an activist against child marriage.
Globally, 700 million girls were married before age 18, and 250 million of those girls were married before 15, according to UNICEF.
Within the US, Texas, Florida, and Kentucky have had the highest numbers of child marriages, with a combined 60,728 marriages involving a minor between the years 2000 and 2010. Idaho had the highest per capita rate of child marriage, with 4,083 underage marriages in the same time period, according to the New York Times with research from the advocacy group Unchained at Last.
In developing countries, poverty often forces families to marry girls off earlier, and frequently forces girls to drop out of school. In Malawi, UNICEF found that two-thirds of girls who did not have an education entered into child marriages.
Inside the US, similar consequences have been found among girls who are married young, including higher rates of poverty and health risks and lower educational attainment, according to the Tahirih Justice Center.
The reasons for child marriage in the US are also not so different from the rest of the world — to protect family honor, pride, and even the belief that a parent is doing what’s best for their child, one study found.
How Child Marriage Hurts Girls in the US
Most child marriages in the US occur between a younger girl or woman and an older man, according to Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, an organization with a mission to end child marriage in the US.
One study published in “Pediatrics,” a scholarly journal, was groundbreaking in connecting child marriage to negative effects in mental health, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders, the Huffington Post reports.
In the US, between 70% and 80% of marriages end in divorce for those married before 18. That’s 20% higher than the nation’s average divorce rate of 40-50%. And teen mothers who marry and divorce are twice as likely to experience poverty than teen mothers who do not marry, according to a study from the College of William and Mary.
As far as educational consequences, the statistics are also stark: a girl who marries before age 19 in US is 50% less likely to complete high school, and four times less likely to go on to college, which can affect her income and career opportunities, according to TJC.
Time to Change the Law and Protect Girls
Across all states, girls (15-17) are more likely than boys are to marry early, by about 55% to 45%, according to Pew Research Center. By age 18, girls are more likely to marry by 66% to 34% compared to boys.
Fortunately, legislators in other states are pushing for an end to child marriage.
Last year on July 1, Virginia became the first and only state to pass legislation to close a loophole that allowed marriage for girls as young as 13. The law changed the age to 18, with a loophole for emancipated teens (16-17) to marry with parental consent. Before changing the law, Virginia had the seventh highest number of child marriages between 2000 and 2010.
“‘Well if this 13-year-old is pregnant, isn’t that evidence of statutory rape?’" Virginia Senator Jill Vogel asked the Independent in March before the state law was enacted. "Is that not a crime? They are truly victims in every way."
And Johnson’s story has helped inspire Cynthia Stafford, a Florida state representative to push for legislative change on child marriage, according to the Independent.
"Marriage is an adult responsibility," Stafford said. "We don't want them to vote, we don't want them to drink alcohol, they can't drive a car, and we allow them to marry under 16?"
Sadly, the bill Stafford and Johnson pushed for did not pass in Florida. But still, Virginia, New York, and the stories of survivors and victims of child marriage will press the issue forward.
Urge lawmakers to support closing loopholes that allow child marriage for minors as young as 14 in New York here.