Though all 50 states in the US have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, legal loopholes mean that child marriage is still legal in some form in every state.
According to the recent study “Child Marriage in the United States: How Common Is the Practice, And Which Children Are at Greatest Risk,” approximately 78,400 children in the US today are or have been married.
While it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of children have been married across the country over the last two decades, precise figures on the number of those affected have been difficult to obtain. But researchers at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health have begun to paint a more accurate picture of the problem, using data from the American Community Survey — an annual survey conducted and released by the Census Bureau.
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Researchers analyzed the survey responses of teens between the ages of 15 and 17 from 2010-2014 and found that an average of 6.8 of every 1,000 girls and 5.7 of every 1,000 boys had been or were currently married at the time they completed the survey, according to a press release.
The study found that immigrant children, especially those from Central America, Mexico, and the Middle East, were more likely to be married than children born in the US. It also identified substantially higher incidences of child marriage in states like West Virginia, North Dakota, and Hawaii, where more than 10 in every 1,000 children were married.
In several states, children under the age of 18 can be married with the consent of a parent or judge, or if they are pregnant.
Read more: This Is What It’s Like to Be a Mom at 10 and Married at 11 in Florida
However, “these marriages are not leading, to the best of our knowledge, to long-term marriages where they’re living together,” Dr. Jody Heymann, co-author of the study and dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told Teen Vogue. “So, I think that’s really important for people who believe that child marriage when there’s a pregnancy is actually forming a family and a long-term marriage. It’s not. It’s really not the solution.”
Previous Census data backs up Heymann’s claim, with 70% of married teens getting divorced. US Census data from 2010 also shows a significantly higher number of married, divorced, separated, and widowed children, putting the figure at about 500,000.
Around the world, 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children, according to Girls Not Brides. While West and Central Africa have the highest rates of child marriage, India is home to the largest number of married children in the world, UNICEF reported.
Read more: Yes, Forced Child Marriages Happen in the US, Too
Child marriage disproportionately affects girls, who are often forced to drop out of school and have children before they are ready.
“Studies show that girls in the US who marry as children have lower education attainment, are at greater risk of living in poverty and suffer adverse health consequences,” added Heymann in a press release. “The large number of child marriages in the U.S. have profound implications on the lives of children and youth that need to be addressed.”
Over the past few years, several states — including Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and New Jersey — have voted on bills that propose setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 without exception. Though many of the bills have resulted in stronger legislation that protects minors against child marriage, no state has succeeded in fully banning child marriage yet.
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