#StillAGirl: Child Marriage in the United States

By: Kaya Callahan ’20 (Guest Writer)

This is an op-ed article that has been slightly modified for our site.

Child marriage is happening in the United States. Some may assume that in the U.S., the minimum age to be married is 18 years old — but it’s actually possible to marry at a younger age in all states, as they all have exemptions to the laws that make it possible. Twenty-five states allow marriage with no age floor, meaning the consent of a parent or judge (or both) can theoretically allow the marriage of a child of any age.

Statistics compiled by PBS’s Frontline show that at least 207,468 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015 across 44 states. The majority of minors who were married were girls; only 13% were boys. According to Frontline’s data — which the program admits does not include every single child marriage in the U.S. — the youngest children to marry were three 10- year-old girls in Tennessee, who were married to men who were 24, 25, and 31, and the youngest groom was 11 years old and married a 26-year-old woman. Thirteen-year-olds were given the OK to marry in 14 states, according to the data, including the state I was born in: New Jersey.

I was outraged when I found out that this May, New Jersey governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill raising the minimum marriage age to 18 in N.J.** As a 15-year-old girl, the thought that others my age and younger could have their choices for the future stripped away was shocking. This is not A Walk to Remember, a movie in which two teens get married because the one has cancer and it’s her dying wish. The reality of child marriage in America is much darker: It results in divorce rates of nearly 70% and high-school-dropout rates as high as 50%; dropping out of high school leads to a greater likelihood of future poverty.

To right this wrong, I’m starting #StillAGirl, a write-in and social media campaign urging Christie to support legislation that bans marriage for all of those under 18. It’s a call to all teens and their parents to join me in taking a stand to protect our own and establish positive change. We cannot stay silent.

Below, you’ll find a copy of the letter I’ve written my lawmaker.

Dear Governor Chris Christie,

I am a 15-year-old New Jersey native, and I recently became aware that there are thousands of child marriages happening in our state. I know that you are more than aware because you vetoed a bill in May that would protect these minors from forced marriages.

In these marriages, the majority of which involve a minor girl and an older man, the child is powerless to make choices and decisions that would affect her future and protect herself. At 15, a young woman my age in New Jersey is too young to drive or have a driver’s license. Because of her age, she can work only limited hours to make money for herself. If she were to try to remove herself from the situation, it would be very hard for her to hire a divorce attorney, rent an apartment, or enter a shelter for abused women, even though child marriage puts young people at greater risk for domestic violence. An op-ed in The Washington Post states, “Most domestic-violence shelters do not accept minors and youth shelters typically notify parents that their children are there.”

You recently vetoed a piece of legislation that would protect children my age and younger because, in your words, “The bill…does not comport with the sensibilities, and in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State.” Raising the marriage age to 18 “without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based off of religious traditions,” you said.

I understand your desire to be sensitive to the customs, cultures, and religious beliefs of the people of the state, especially because New Jersey was recently identified as one of the 10 most diverse states in America. But this is not about religion — and even if it were, to protect a few, you have exposed many.

I don’t know if you’re among those who believe these marriages are most often cases of minors marrying other minors, but that is not the majority. In the U.S., 86% of child-marriage cases involve adults marrying minors] (apps.frontline.org/child-marriage-by-the-numbers), and what comes next is often a horrible reality.

[Studies have shown that] they have a higher risk of psychiatric disorders and are 31% more likely to end up in poverty. Most of the parents who sign over their children believe they are doing the right thing for different reasons, though some just don’t care. Just because it’s a belief or tradition doesn’t make it right.

There’s a solution that can change all this, and it starts with supporting legislation that makes the minimum marriageable age 18 with no exceptions. With education and awareness, women and girls are finding the courage to stand up and change old, broken systems, and you can support them by learning more about the issue through the Tahirih Justice Center, whose lawyers have helped draft recent legislation and are working on initiatives to eliminate marriage for those under 18 in all 50 states.

We have to do the right thing, even if it’s not popular. These vulnerable children of your state need your protection. Please be their champion.

Peacefully yours,

Kaya Callahan

#StillAGirl

These are the 25 states that allow child marriage under the age of 15. If your state is on the list, I invite you to use the form letter below to write to your state legislator.

• ALASKA • ARIZONA • ARKANSAS • CALIFORNIA • COLORADO • DELAWARE • FLORIDA • IDAHO • KANSAS • KENTUCKY • LOUISIANA • MAINE • MASSACHUSETTS • MICHIGAN • NEVADA • NEW HAMPSHIRE • NEW MEXICO • NORTH CAROLINA • OKLAHOMA • PENNSYLVANIA • RHODE ISLAND • TENNESSEE • TEXAS • WEST VIRGINIA • WYOMING

Dear ______, (Legislator)

I was shocked and horrified to learn that my home state has no age floor or minimum marriage age laws in place to protect a minor/child from being married to an adult. This needs to change! Fact: Statistics show that 31% of girls are more likely to end up in poverty, are 3x more likely to be beaten by their spouses, have a higher risk of psychiatric disorders due to trauma, and have an almost 80% divorce rate. Theres almost no way to escape these “bonds” of marriage. In these marriages the child is powerless to make choices and decisions that would affect her future and protect herself. Even at 16 or 17, it would be very hard for her to hire a divorce attorney by herself, rent an apartment, or enter a shelter for abused women because minors aren’t allowed into an adult shelter without contacting the parents and sending them back.
I strongly urge you to protect the children of our State by supporting legislation to raise the minimum marriage age to 18- No exceptions!

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this matter.

Peacefully Yours,

 

For further reading:

Johnson, Brent. “Christie rejects ban on marriage for N.J. teens under 18.”
NJ.com, 11 May 2017, www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/
christie_rejects_ban_on_marriage_for_nj_teens_unde.html. Accessed 15 Sept.
2017.

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