Child Marriage Laws in the U.S. and Around the World

Some countries ban child marriage—the U.S. isn't one of them

Updated 10/05/19

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Child marriage laws are more lax in the U.S. than in Zimbabwe (and El Salvador and Guatemala and Malawi and Honduras), which is among eight countries that have banned child marriage in the past three years alone.

By contrast, marriage under age 18 is legal in all 50 states. U.S. laws fall short for two main reasons: Each state has slightly different regulations about marrying age, and there are a number of loopholes that set minimum marrying age as low as 13 or allow states to have no minimum age at all.

In Florida specifically, where 16,000 children married between 2011 and 2015, a pregnant girl of any age can marry. In Afghanistan—much like some U.S. states with more aggressive regulations—the minimum marrying age is 15 with parental or judicial consent, and 16 without it.

While girls are at the highest risk in nations like India, Uganda, and Bangladesh, child marriage at any age, in any country, for children with any socioeconomic status can derail a person's life and leave them susceptible to abuse. In the U.S., a person cannot buy a car, sign a lease, or qualify for certain kinds of employment under the age of 18. If things go south in a marriage to an older person, which has been lawfully allowed or coerced by parents, a child has nowhere to turn for support.

Two tragic examples of this came to light in a BBC segment for the news network's "America First?" series. The piece introduced Angel McGehee and Sherry Johnson, who both became child brides in the U.S. at different ages and in different eras.

McGehee had just turned 13 when she wed in her childhood living room in Idaho. She says the marriage—and giving birth for the first time at age 15—was orchestrated by her own mother. McGehee believes it was a ploy to hinder her independence. "I was a slave to my [first husband], I was a slave to this idea that my mother wanted us to all be together and for me to have kids so young," she said.

Now 26 years old with five children (including two with her second husband), McGehee's life has been forever changed by her mother's lawful choice: "I still have all of this emotional baggage of wanting to have done something with my life by now. It is really all the time that I think about what I could have done or could have been."

Florida native Sherry Johnson was just 11 and pregnant when her mother forced her to marry her 20-year-old rapist. By age 16, she had six children. "That actually was my life: having children and trying to survive and live for them," she told the BBC. "It wasn't even about me anymore." Today, Johnson is working with Florida lawmakers to close the loopholes that continue to strip children of the rights to their own future.

"Our clients, they come from every socioeconomic level," says Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, an organization that helps U.S. women and girls leave forced or arranged marriages. "Really, the commonality that we see among our clients is that they're almost always girls, and the perpetrators are almost always their parents."

Human rights advocates draw comparisons between the U.S. and Afghanistan to prove a point: Even while agreeing to help end child marriage by 2030 in support of U.N. efforts, the U.S. continues to miss opportunities to ban child marriage across the board. In March, the Republican-led New Hampshire House shot down a bill that would have raised the state's minimum marrying age from 13 to 18.

New Hampshire's marriage policy was called into question by Cassandra Levesque, a Girl Scout who was appalled that children could marry so young there. At the time, Republican state representative David Bates dismissed the legal loophole as a "law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty" saying it was only being questioned, "on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project."

Next week, a group of advocates will travel to the state capitol to push for a law that will set Florida's minimum marrying age at 18. New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to that effect in June. This came after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a similar bill in a state that allowed nearly 35,000 child marriages between 2000 and 2010.

In short, the U.S. doesn't need to look beyond its own borders to see the troubling reality of child marriage in the 21st century. "So when we've set our foreign policy and when we're going around the world, what we're seeing is marriage before 18 is a human rights abuse, forces girls into adulthood before they're ready, and we need to end it," Reiss says. "But at home, in the United States, in the year 2017, marriage before 18 is legal in all 50 states."

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