Dawn Tyree was just 11 years old when a family friend began molesting her. A year later she became pregnant from the rapes, and when her parents learned what had been happening they didn’t go to the police.
Rather, Tyree recalled, “It was decided for me that I would marry him.”
And so Tyree was married at 13 to her rapist, a 32 year old man, to save face for her family. What was statutory rape was now being sanctioned by the state as marriage.
While the US State Department takes issue with child marriages across the developing world, in fact every state in U.S. has allowed child marriages — which sometimes constitute forced marriages — to occur. It was only last month that Delaware became the first state to ban all child marriages without exception.
Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times shares Tyree’s story:
“We went to the county courthouse, and a judge asked if I wanted to be married,” Tyree remembered. “My answer was ‘yes.’ For a couple of weeks, I’d been told that marriage was best for me and that I needed to tell the judge that.”
Tyree missed seventh and eighth grades because of the pregnancy and the birth of her son, and because another child, a daughter, soon followed. Tyree became concerned that her husband was a pedophile who might prey on her children, so the marriage lasted just three years; at age 16 Tyree found herself a single mom.
In such cases, a bride can be coerced even if she isn’t beaten. “I was very scared and confused, and I wanted to keep my family happy,” she told me. “Being unwed with child would have been embarrassing to the family. I wanted to keep the peace.”
Tyree added, “The marriage was a way to cover up the rape. The marriage was a way to keep me from being an unwed teen mother. The marriage was a way to avoid any child services investigation. The marriage was a way to avoid child neglect charges against my parents. The marriage was a way to keep my husband out of prison.”
While there are cases of Americans marrying before they are 18 without issue, for those that face problems it’s often hard to escape. Domestic violence shelters across the country rarely take in anyone under 18.
Kristof also notes that while marriage laws are largely up to states, there is room for federal action in cases of forced marriage involving foreign spouses. Sometimes immigrant girls in the US are forced to marry a man abroad in hopes of obtaining a spousal visa.
“It should be a simple matter to ban spouse visas unless both parties were 18 at the time of the marriage,” writes Kristof.