In a wide-ranging radio interview from 2009, resurfaced Sunday by the media watchdog Media Matters, Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson repeatedly downplayed the problem of child marriage.
Over the course of an hour on the radio show Bubba the Love Sponge, Carlson said that a man convicted of facilitating child marriage shouldn’t go to jail, questioned whether child marriage should be considered a crime, described child marriage as a rare occurrence, and compared the right to child marriage to the right to same-sex marriage. He has since refused to apologize for his comments.
Experts on child marriage, sexual violence, and girls’ rights were quick to condemn the remarks and used the opportunity to dispel misconceptions and call for an end to child marriage.
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“It's bad enough to hear this from a talking head, but we’ve heard this kind of thing from policymakers, and that’s where the real danger is,” Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of the anti-forced marriage organization Unchained at Last, told Global Citizen. “We need people to realize that child rape is child rape, and child marriage is not romantic. There’s nothing good about it — it’s an ancient relic from a sexist past and it’s time for it to go.
“Attitudes like this are the reason why we still have child marriage in the US,” she added. “It’s people like Carlson, and lot of them are legislators and policymakers. And because the word marriage is in it, it somehow seems OK to them.”
In the years since Carlson’s comments were made, the movement to end child marriage has gained momentum.
A key part of the campaign involves educating the public and making sure people know the extent of child marriage and its many consequences, according to experts.
“This kind of rhetoric, especially from someone with such a large platform, is uniquely dangerous and puts girls at risk,” said Kate Kelly, human rights attorney at women's rights organization Equality Now. “Most people know it happens elsewhere in the world but they don’t know it happens here. It’s shocking how frequent it happens and how young the girls are.”
Between 2000 and 2010, more than 248,000 children, some as young as 12, were married off in the US. Although 18 is technically the minimum age for marriage across the country, nearly all states allow exceptions, such as judicial waivers, parental consent forms, or on religious grounds.
US immigration law even allows marriage visas for children as young as 14, according to a US Senate report. In one instance, a 68-year old man applied for a marriage visa for a 16-year old.
The US State Department considers child marriage a human rights violation.
“And so Tucker Carlson is taking a human rights violation and somehow saying that it’s OK, and adding on a layer of child rape to that human rights abuse,” Reiss said.
Although Carlson framed child marriage as an obscure religious practice, Kelly clarified that “it’s surprisingly uniform across all demographics, and all religious groups.”
The Fox News host also claimed that adults who marry children make a “lifelong commitment to live and take care of the person so it is a little different” than other forms of child abuse, but 70% to 80% of child marriages end in divorce.
Further, this framing suggests that children are ready to make a lifelong commitment, when they haven’t yet fully developed emotionally and physically, and are otherwise afforded very few rights.
“There’s a common misperception that young girls are ready for marriage or capable of entering into a contract of that magnitude, which helps to perpetuate the problem and often young girls are sexualized in a really troubling way,” Kelly said. “At the same time they’re not given any rights or voice, so they’re simultaneously sexualized and made into objects of desire and potentials for marriage but they aren’t able to enter into any other contracts, so they can’t get a divorce and can’t go to a domestic violence shelter.”
As an example, Kelly described the case of a girl who was forced into a marriage, divorced, and then put into a foster home because she had no legal guardian and wasn’t old enough to live on her own.
This kind of rhetoric, especially from someone with such a large platform, is uniquely dangerous and puts girls at risk.
Reiss said that the lack of legal rights for minors makes child marriage a "trap."
"Children across the US simply don't have the same legal rights as they do when they turn 18," she said. "They face overwhelming legal barriers if they try to say no to an impending marriage, or try to get out of that marriage. Something as simple as trying to leave an abusive home — they'll be dragged back. Something as simple as seeking a protective order — children can’t do that before 18. A child can’t even bring a legal action in her own name so she can’t file for divorce."
Children who are forced into marriage face an array of consequences.
Child brides are twice as likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be abused by their spouses that women in marriages, according to the National Coalition to End Child Marriage. Children who are married face higher school dropout rates and can experience lifelong post-traumatic stress that harms their ability to interact with other people. They’re also are more likely to experience severe complications during pregnancy, contract sexually transmitted diseases, and develop other diseases, according to Unchained at Last.
“The psychological consequences particularly of marrying an older man are long-lasting and traumatic,” Kelly said. “Girls aren’t fully developed at that point to interact with an adult at that level, so if they marry an adult, they’re thrust into a situation where they don’t have the tools to interact.
“It’s a cascading effect that sets them up to be in a position of vulnerability and poverty, and forever reliant on their partner,” she added
Kelly found it particularly distressing how Carlson seemed to be exonerating Warren Jeffs, the leader of a polygamist cult who married off and raped scores of girls.
“It’s very troubling to hold someone up like that and excuse someone like that," she said.
In recent years, public pressure has led to crackdowns on child marriage. Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to fully ban child marriage, and dozens of other states are considering similar legislation.
Globally, there are around 700 million girls alive today who were married before their 15th birthdays. In countries such as Niger, 77% of women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before turning 18. In India, which has the most child marriages, there are more than 10 million child brides. India, however, has made strides in outlawing child marriage and the country’s top court recently ruled that sex with a child bride is always rape.
The National Coalition to End Child Marriage, a coalition of organizations including Equality Now, Unchained at Last, and Global Citizen, is fighting for a federal ban on child marriage in the US to eliminate loopholes around the country and ensure that no child is married off before the age of 18.
Kelly said that this campaign is an essential part of the broader effort for women’s rights.
“We have to include girls in that fight, so protecting girls from abuse, protecting them from neglect, protecting them from being overly sexualized and from being forced into adult relationships that they aren’t prepared to be in, should be a No. 1 priority of the women’s movement,” she said.