Human Rights

A Look At How And Why Child Marriage Still Happens In The US

It could soon change.

A Look At How And Why Child Marriage Still Happens In The US
Katie Thomas / CC by 2.0

Long-standing laws and loopholes have kept some forms of child marriage legal in every U.S. state — until now. Delaware just fully banned child marriage, and that could impact other states, too. 

But advocates and organizations who've long pushed for change know the fight is far from over. 

As Time notes, child marriage laws in the U.S. stem from 18th century norms where age had little do with sexual consent — marriage did. So how do child marriages still happen today? 

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A Kansas City Star analysis shows in most states an underage marriage involves a combination of permissions from a parent and a judge and sometimes proof that the girl is pregnant. 

Forcing a child into marriage, though, is a practice the U.S. Department of State considers a human rights abuse.

"I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 10, and then I was forced to marry my rapist at the age of 11," Florida activist Sherry Johnson says

Johnson says her parents forced her to marry a man nine years older than her. Florida law made it legal. Johnson is now fighting to make sure others don't experience what she had to go through. 

Florida and Tennessee, among other states, have made headlines for their recent efforts to upend laws allowing child marriage. But some of these bills might still allow exceptions — like when partners are only a couple years apart.

The Kansas City Star analysis showed the state where child marriage laws are the most lax is Missouri. The Star called the state a "destination wedding spot for 15-year-old brides."

In February, a Missouri House bill aimed at banning marriage for those 15 and under passed — but not without resistance from 50 lawmakers. The bill has since moved to the Senate

So why do states not overturn laws? One example comes from New Jersey where a bill aimed at eliminating child marriage was vetoed in 2017 by then-Gov. Chris Christie. 

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Christie said he agreed it's important to keep minors safe but that the bill's requirements were over the top and didn't consider religious customs of state residents.

That same bill recently resurfaced, and in late June was signed into law by current New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. 

In a statement Murphy said, "Studies have consistently showed that minors who enter into marriage — particularly young women — are less likely to graduate from high school and college and more likely to suffer domestic abuse and live in poverty."

Christie's veto message shows just how cumbersome and controversial it is to dismantle these laws. In New Jersey and several other states, the age of consent for sexual interactions is as young as 15 or 16. So, like Christie, some argue that with those laws in place, consent to marriage should coincide with the age for sexual consent. 

Frontline data shows more than 207,000 children were married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2015.