At least 100,000 children are prostituted annually in the U.S., adding to the $9.8 billion U.S. sex trafficking industry. Children all over the country are subject to physical and sexual abuse, and most of the time it happens a lot closer to home than we would expect. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator, and an astonishing 68% are abused by family members.
What’s worse, some of the laws surrounding child sexual abuse and child marriage (or lack thereof) actually enable their practice. As a result, more than 200,000 children in the U.S. were married in the past 15 years alone. We often view child marriage as only being an issue in third-world countries, but in reality, it occurs right here in North America, too. Children as young as 10 have been married to far older adults, despite the legal requirement to wed being 18, or legal adulthood, nationwide.
This is because many states have “legal loopholes” that allow adults to marry children. Not all states are willing to provide statistics on this problem, and many have provided only some details rather than the full scope, so that 200,000 is likely far below the real number of American child brides and grooms.
Why Child Marriage Is a Huge Problem in the U.S.
In May of this year, the Republican governor of New Jersey declined an offer to sign a law that would have made New Jersey the first state to ban child marriage without exception. Many people probably assume that child marriage is illegal in the U.S., but the sad reality is that these loopholes allow children to get married at a very young age. In New Jersey alone, approximately 3,500 children were married between 1995 and 2012.
The governor claimed that signing the law would have “conflicted with religious customs.” Some of these loopholes include if the child has gotten pregnant or if the child receives parental consent. Can you imagine your parents arranging a marriage for you, prior to the age of 18? Yes, this is the reality for many people all over the world, but few realize this happens in America too. Alternatively, could you imagine getting pregnant at the young age of 13 and then being forced to wed? This is a terrifying reality for many victims of child marriage.
207,468 minors are known to have been married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015, but 10 states provided absolutely no data or inaccurate statistics on child marriage, so this number does not reflect the true scope of the issue. Of this number, most of the children were girls who were married to much older men, and many were as young as 13. Eighty-seven percent of these minors were girls, and although the majority were aged 16 or 17, many were much younger.
Amongst the youngest to get married were three 10-year-old girls in Tennessee, who married men between the ages of 24 and 31. Another young boy was married at the age of 11 to a 27-year-old woman in the same state.
It’s not just Tennessee; children as young as 12 were married in Alaska, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and 11 other states permit 13-year-old children to get married. Keep in mind that, in most of these cases, the minors were marrying older adults, not other minors. Only 14% of these minors were actually marrying other minors, but even still, is it really okay for a 17-year-old to marry a 13-year-old?
Although most of them married adults no older than 30, in some cases, children were permitted to marry adults decades older than them. There was one case in Alabama where a 14-year-old girl married a 74-year-old man, and another in Idaho in which a 17-year-old married a 65-year-old man.
Let’s remember that, although most states recognize that sexual consent can be granted by those aged 16 to 18, a person can still be charged with statutory rape for having sex with a minor. Despite this, many states are granting children with marriage licenses, including minors who are much younger than 16.
Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at Tahirih Justice Centre Jeanne Smoot explained that most of the children who get married as minors are those living in poverty. She stated: “Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families, don’t get married young. This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”
An astonishing 27 states don’t even have laws to set an “age floor,” meaning that no laws exist to establish the youngest age a minor can get married. Loopholes like this one are what allow minors to get married in the first place. The irony is that sexual abuse is “illegal,” yet the government is allowing minors to get married as young as 10 years old. What do these judges expect will occur in these marriages? This is not a way to protect these children, as child marriage can enable abuse and pedophilia.
It’s clear that child marriage isn’t just an issue in third-world countries. If we truly want to become leaders in this world and set the stage for other countries, we need to reflect that both in our laws and in our morals. Children deserve rights and protection, and this desperately needs to be reflected in our judiciary system.