Esther* was just 17 when she got married to a man her parents had picked for her. He was older, smoked, drank too much, and took drugs. Throughout their marriage, he would rape her continually while forbidding her from using birth control. Esther became pregnant at 18 and then quickly had another child shortly thereafter. She felt totally alone and completely unable to stop what was happening to her, saying: “He would threaten me that he was from a rich family, and he would take away our children and leave me without my children, without money or food.”
Hearing her horrific story, you might assume that Esther lives in a developing nation (where one in three girls wed before they turn 18). However, Esther lives in New York City, where up until just last month, the law allowed 14-year-old children to marry with permission from a judge and their parents, and children age 16 to marry with just parental approval.
The problem of child marriage in the U.S. may be less widespread than in other parts of the world, but the fact that it’s happening at all is an issue that needs to be addressed. Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that claims to be the only organization in the country helping girls and women escape forced marriages and rebuild their lives, spoke to CBS News earlier this year and argued: "We cannot solve the child marriage problem globally if we don't first solve it here in the United States.”
A report published by Pew Research Center last year found that around 57,800 American minors between the ages of 15 and 17 were married as of 2014 and that child marriage is most common in the southern states—West Virginia and Texas had the highest rates in the country. But it’s not just the numbers that are troubling, it’s also the law itself. Almost every state allows those under 18 to marry under certain circumstances, and at the time of Pew’s report, there were 27 states in which there was no limit to how young a child could marry if a judge authorized the marriage.
However, things are beginning to change. In late June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation prohibiting all marriages before the age of 17 and even then, a 17-year-old can only marry with a judge’s permission. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2001 and 2010, 3,850 children under 18 were married in New York State; Heather Barr, senior women’s rights researcher at HRW, was quick to praise the legislative changes. “Child marriage is a dirty secret in the U.S.,” she says, “and other states should follow New York’s example by enacting laws to help end this harmful practice.”
Even more promisingly, Texas—which has the highest number of child marriages in the country—has taken significant action to stop the practice. Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a bill making it illegal for those under the age of 18 to marry, unless they are court-emancipated minors over 16 years old.
In 2016, countries around the world agreed to a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ending all child marriage by 2030, but if the U.S. is to meet this target, more states need to start taking serious steps to change their legislation.
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After almost 10 years of abuse, Esther managed to leave her husband. With the help of Unchained at Last, she divorced him and achieved full custody of her children and the right to raise them as she pleases. “Having to say yes to something so serious at such a young age is like signing a contract in a language you don’t understand,” she says in her testament, published on the NGO’s website. “Now you have the power to prevent what happened to me from happening to another 17-year-old girl.”
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.