Sherry Johnson was 11 years old when she became a bride. “It was forced on me,” she told the New York Times. “My mom asked me if I wanted to get married, and I said, ‘I don’t know, what is marriage, how do I act like a wife?’ She said, ‘Well, I guess you’re just going to get married.’ ” Despite being just 11 years old, with her birth date clearly printed on the marriage license, Sherry was married in Pinellas County, Florida, where it was completely legal for a child her age to marry.
And Sherry isn’t alone. A worrying new report released from the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit aimed at protecting immigrant women and girls from violence, has shown the extent of child marriage in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2015 around 200,000 children were married on U.S. soil, many of them young girls getting married to men years—or decades—older than they were. While many states have legislative protections against these type of marriages, many men use exceptions and loopholes in order to get around the laws.
The legality varies from state to state, but as a country we have a shocking lack of protection for children facing marriage. Half the states do not set any age requirement by statute at all. An additional eight states set the age at lower than 16. So in 33 states, it is possible for an adult to marry someone 15 or younger without arousing any suspicion. If that’s not disturbing enough, the exceptions written into the legislature make child marriages surprisingly easy to get approved in most other states.
"For example, New Hampshire's laws describe the age of consent to marry as 18 years for both males and females, but then permit judicial approval for males age 14 or older and for females age 13 or older,” the new report explains. “At least as recently as 2013, a 13-year-old girl was married in New Hampshire. Maryland has a pregnancy exception that applies to children as young as 15, which is younger even than the state's legal age of consent to sex. Since 2000, this exception has enabled the marriages of at least 140 15-year-olds who were pregnant or had already given birth to a child."
And these states aren’t exceptions—this is very much the norm. Disturbingly, only Virginia, Texas, and New York have laws on the books prohibiting marriage under the age of 18 with no exceptions (and those laws were only passed recently). In all other states, there are exceptions, and with those exceptions comes a potential for manipulation. In fact, in nine states there are exceptions just for pregnancy, an especially perverse option given that cases of statutory rape can constitute a legal basis for a wedding.
And it’s about far more than just these marriages. Girls who are too young to consent are not only trapped into marriages, in some cases they are too young to get out—they can’t legally request a divorce, though they were considered old enough to marry. Emancipation isn’t automatic when you’re married. If you can’t get help from your parents or the authorities, emergency services can’t always step in. Not all shelters cater to children in the same way they do to adults, so options are severely limited.
And after the marriages end, the damage is lasting. Seventy to 80 percent of these marriages do eventually end in divorce, but then comes the recovery. Teen brides are twice as likely to end up living in poverty and four times less likely to go to college. Sexual abuse, as well as physical and emotional abuse, is rife, not to mention all the lasting effects (on both mother and child) of teen pregnancies. In the worst cases, these marriages are just a way to put a legal veneer over consistent, repeated rape of young women by older men. The mental toll is impossible to measure.
Closing these loopholes isn’t complicated. There are too many outdated laws on the books allowing very real abuse to happen in the 21st century. We can’t look away from it any longer.