Women and girls across the United States are being forced into marriages — a problem exacerbated by gaps in state laws and the lack of social protections in some communities.
Fraidy Reiss, now a 45-year-old mother of two and founder of Unchained at Last, recalled how she entered an arranged marriage at 19 to a stranger who was 22.
Growing up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, she explained that “Single women were mocked and treated terribly. I didn’t really have a right to say no. I had seen how unmarried women were treated and was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t get married.”
Reiss managed to hide away savings to attend university and would later change the locks on her house and file for divorce — a move that prompted her now ex-husband to stalk and threaten her, on top of being disowned by her own family. “I am dead to them,” she said.
Her story is far from being an anomaly as Al Jazeera reports:
While the legal age of marriage is 18 in the vast majority of US states (Nebraska is 19 and Mississippi is 21), many states have exceptions and children can marry with parental consent, because of pregnancy or with judicial approval. These exceptions often put children, particularly those in abusive or unstable homes, at increased risk.
Currently, only four US states (New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota and Pennsylvania) prohibit marriage below the age of 18 outright. Some states have no minimum age requirement if there is parental or judicial approval and other states have a young minimum age. In North Carolina and Alaska, a 14-year-old can marry with judicial approval. But often, judges hearing these cases are not an adequate safeguard for these children and are not trained in family and children’s issues.
“When judicial approval is needed for a child to be married, one might expect that this is because judges have certain training in trauma and child abuse that might inform their granting of an exception. This is not, however, usually the case,” says Dr Sarah Gundle, a clinical psychologist in New York City, who works extensively with trauma survivors.
This lack of judicial safeguards is precisely why Donna Pollard ended up in an abusive child marriage while growing up in an abusive home in Kentucky.
Her mother got her admitted to a behavioral health facility in Indiana, where an older man began grooming her. “He thought I would be easy to prey on,” she said.
When she was just 16, the man decided they should marry and her mother consented to it. When the county clerk issued the marriage license, Pollard says she asked no questions to ensure she was safe. “It was cold and transactional; the clerk didn’t even look up from her computer.”
Her husband soon became violent and Pollard tried to escape, but found barriers to support within her own community. The assistant principal of the local high school turned her away because married girls “would just end up pregnant” and no one would rent her an apartment because she was a minor.
Another time she tried to flee to a domestic violence shelter, but was turned away because she was under 18. In many states, shelters won’t take minors fleeing domestic abuse due to outdated “harbouring-a-runaway” laws.
As Joan Meier from the National Family Violence Law Center noted, “It is unimaginable to think of children who were married off and then abused while still children being turned away by the one institution that is intended to be a place of refuge for victims of abuse.”
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