Does the term “child marriage” conjure images of young brides in Bangladesh or Uganda? That would be understandable, as those are among the countries with the world’s highest rates of under-18 marriages among girls — 51% and 34%, respectively.

But the human-rights abuse is also taking place right in the United States, where nearly 300,000 minors, most of them girls, were married between 2000 and 2018 — despite the US being one of 193 countries promising to end child marriage by 2030 as part of the United Nation’s Global Goals.

It’s that worldwide focus which, while vital, can sometimes condition Americans to think child marriage is not an issue here, says Alex Goyette, public policy manager at the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative. But it is, he says, “and if we want to end it globally, we have to end it in the US. Because we are part of that globe.”

What is child marriage?

In a child marriage, one or both people are under 18 at the time of the wedding.

A forced marriage, meanwhile, is one in which one or both people do not give full and free consent and can occur at any age; it is globally recognized as a form of modern slavery, and recognized nationally as a human rights abuse that prevents gender equality.

All child marriage is considered forced marriage by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, while the US State Department considers it a form of child abuse and a human rights abuse. 

Why does child marriage typically occur in the US?

An April 2024 Population Institute report notes that while US drivers are not fully known, they sometimes include religious communities and systems that value girls’ virginity.

“It’s almost always a girl married to an adult man who is an average of four years older,” notes founder/executive director of the survivor-led US nonprofit Unchained At Last Fraidy Reiss, who adds that, according to anecdotal evidence, “It’s happening everywhere — every race, every ethnicity, every socio-economic level. It’s a gender-violence issue that’s not limited to any one community.”

The common factor in all cases, notes Goyette, is “a patriarchal desire to control a girl’s body.”

What are the negative impacts of child marriage in the US?

The detrimental effects, according to a 2020 report by the International Center for Research on Women, include the interruption of education, higher likelihood of poverty, poor physical and mental health (including increased risks of diabetes, cancer, heart attack, stroke, or depression), and being particularly prone to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Further, a report by the World Bank found that these negative impacts translate into a “very high” economic cost for both the individual and society at large.

“It has changed the trajectory of my life,” Mandy Havlik tells Global Citizen about being forced by her parents and pressured by her Christian fundamentalist community to marry an older man when she was just 17. “I believed it was going to better their standing in the church,” says Havlik, who tried breaking up with the man, running away, and getting emancipated until she had “exhausted every resource.”

She left the marriage at 20. Now 42, living in San Diego with her new husband and two children, Havlik thinks about all that was lost — a scholarship she was forced to give up, the church that excommunicated her — but is “empowered” by fighting for anti-child-marriage legislation in California.

The slow road to legal protections

In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to outlaw marriage under 18. That was followed in the same year by American Samoa; in 2020 by the U.S. Virgin Islands, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota; in 2021 by Rhode Island and New York; in 2022 by Massachusetts; and in 2023 by Vermont, Connecticut, and Michigan.

Just last month, the state of Washington banned minors from marriage, with Gov. Jay Inslee signing House Bill 1455, and this week, the state of Virginia passed its bill and it was signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Monday, April 8.

That still leaves 38 states in which child marriage is legal — including Texas, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Alabama, which have the highest incidences, according to the ICRW report.

But next up to change that could be California, which started out as a leader in the move to ban child marriage by introducing legislation in 2017 but added safeguards for minors to marry due to pressure from outside groups. Since then, an estimated 8,700 children were married there in 2021 alone, as it’s just one of just four states (with New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) with no minimum age for marriage.

“It is absolutely shocking, it is horrifying, and it is time we finally end this outrageous practice,” noted Calif. Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) in February, when she introduced a state bill, sponsored by Unchained At Last, to end all child marriage in the state. That bill now awaits a hearing in the assembly’s judiciary committee, scheduled for April 23.

“There’s a lot to feel hopeful about in California,” says Reiss, noting the bill’s 30 coauthors. “We are in a stronger position now than we ever have been, and public support is on our side.”

Also hopeful are New Hampshire, whose senate unanimously passed a bill to end child marriage in early March.

So what can we do?

Call your state representatives — especially if you live in states with pending legislation — and let them know you support bills to end all marriage before 18 with no exceptions.

“I was stuck,” Havlik says. “And I’m not saying that at 18 you get this wisdom to pick your life partner. It really has to do with the legal capacity — and the ability to get out of the situation if you choose to do so.”


Demand Equity

Yes, Child Marriage Exists in the US. Here’s Why — and How State-by-State Efforts Aim to End It.

By Beth Greenfield