Child marriage is still legal in the U.S. Minors, defined by the UN as someone under the age of 18, are able to be married under certain conditions in 43 states. Shockingly, seven of these states have no minimum age requirement at all. Despite campaigning efforts, the practice is banned with no exceptions in just seven states.
U.S. domestic law lagging behind
The U.S. government often campaigns globally to end the practice of child marriage while its domestic legislation continues to permit the practice.
Child marriage across the globe not only puts minors at increased risk of abuse but also limits their ability to pursue opportunities, such as an education. Young girls are overwhelmingly more vulnerable to the practice, and an estimated 12 million girls are married every year globally. The risk of forced child marriage increases where parents and family members are able to pressure a child into marriage against their will.
Recent events like COVID-19 have placed more children at risk of forced marriage as their families struggle to make ends meet.
Council on Foreign Relations reports:
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned that an additional 10 million girls could face child marriage by the end of the decade because of the pandemic.
Between 2000 and 2018, an estimated 300,000 girls – some as young as 10 – were married to older men in the U.S. The younger a child is, the less control they have to give their free consent to marriage and the more vulnerable they may be to forced marriage.
Without federal legislation banning child marriage and only seven states banning the practice, the U.S. has a lot of work to do better protect children within its own borders.
In California, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lobbied against a ban, reasoning that banning underage marriage:
“unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause,” adding that “largely banning marriage under 18, before we have evidence regarding the nature and severity of the problem, however, puts the cart before the horse.”
CFR argues that opposition on this basis contradicts the reasoning for government imposed age restrictions on other matters such as preventing children from being able to vote or purchase alcohol.
The U.S. opens itself up to justified criticism and hypocrisy given its conflicting stance on child marriage at home and abroad. Children need to be protected from forced marriage everywhere, including in nations like the U.S.