Child marriage in America

The problem you never knew about

Trigger warning: this article contains content that includes sexual abuse of minors. If this is an issue that you find triggering I would encourage you to use your discretion in deciding if this is the right article for you. If you did just want to read about the laws and what we can do to change them skip to the section entitled “What’s wrong with the Laws” and read from there. 

For my final project in one of my social work classes, I was assigned a nine to ten-page paper on an issue of a minority in America that is often overlooked. I am sure this last week, this week and this coming week you also have many assignments of similar length. 

And while I at times go for the easiest quickest way to get an A, meaning choosing the easiest possible topic. This time however I deviated from my norm. Instead I choose a topic near to my heart: child marriage. 

Children’s rights and children’s rights advocacy is actually one of the main reasons why I choose social work as a major. I am passionate about kids. But instead of publishing my 2600-word paper, I thought I could condense it down here and spread some awareness about this issue. 

What is it? 

First of all, child marriage? Child marriage is defined as the marriage of any person or persons below the age of 18. 

Child marriage is not an issue only in America. This is a global issue and a violation of human rights according to United Nations Human Rights. Even though we are statistically the worst country or region with this issue, that doesn’t mean we are excused from being part of the solution. 

What does it look like?

It’s stories like that of Sherry Johnson, who, at age 10, was raped and impregnated by her church deacon. To avoid a messy criminal case was quickly married to her rapist and abuser. “Sherry’s family took her to nearby Pinellas County where the judge issued a marriage license with full knowledge that Sherry was just 11 years-old”

Who does it happen to?

It can affect anyone in any walk of life but that does not mean that it doesn’t affect some groups more than others. For example, girls are far more likely to be married young than boys, girls of color more likely than girls of white non-hispanic descent. Many people also don’t know that the group most at risk in terms of age is between 15-18. 

One study found that the group most at risk was American Indians with 14.2 for every 1000 girls married young. To kind of put these numbers in perspective, a study entitled State Are Failing our Children: an Analysis of child marriage laws in the United States reported that “[between] 2000 and 2015, an alarming 200,000 children married in the United States”. 

What are the consequences?

That’s a lot of kids. But why does it matter? Who cares that these kids are getting married young? What about the high school sweethearts or the 18-year-old girls that feel genuine affection for men twice their age?

Well, the problem is that getting married young, especially forced marriage has been linked to disastrous physical and mental health effects for the minor involved. says on their website that, “Globally, girls married before the age of 15 are almost 50% more likely to have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence than those married after 18”. 

Other negative effects of child marriage include premature pregnancy, childbearing and pregnancy-related death, infant mortality, sexually transmitted infections, social isolation and prohibitions from attending school or finding a job.

Being married young also makes your marriage 70-80% more likely to fail. I would also argue that a link can be made to predatory behavior. When an older man seeks out younger girls, it is often an indicator of predatory behavior. 

Grooming is one of these aforementioned predatory behaviors and is defined by RAIN as, “Manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” Grooming and child marriage are issues that go hand-in-hand. Both are pedophilic in nature, as the goal is often to convince victims to agree to sexual abuse.

Girls who marry young also have it much worse if they get pregnant, especially if they fall pregnant before they finish high school. Many are left without an education and remain financially dependent on their partner. 

Girls that are minors also can’t go to domestic abuse shelters because they can be considered runaways. Minors can not apply for a divorce because contracts with minors are not valid except for a marriage license. 

What is wrong with the laws?

Things like this are possible because 48 different states have a statutory exception to child marriage laws. The only states that have no such exceptions are New Jersey and Delaware. Loopholes include either parental or judicial consent. Some states both and in others, one or the other. Some states can also authorize marriage based on morals or welfare, which in many cases means a pregnancy.

Eighteen states do not have statutory age floors, which is the minimum age both parties must be for marriage to be legal like in California. Even if a state does have a statutory age floor, that does not mean that they effectively prevent this human rights violation. 

Massachusetts had a minimum of age 14 for boys and age 12 for girls. New Hampshire is not much better, with a minimum of 14 for boys and 13 for girls. States like Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey have all made strides in protecting children from this issue. All states have a minimum age requirement of 18, and Virginia follows this rule, with the only exception being in Virginia, you can get married at 17 if you are an emancipated court child.

What needs to be done?

So where does this information leave us? We know this is an issue affecting the United States. We know the effects, of which I could list more of, negatively impact young girls in these relationships. And finally, we can be certain that politicians aren’t doing enough to defend young people in these situations. 

The law actually can work against them in denying them their rights. There are several changes that need to be made immediately. 

First, there should be a mandatory minimum marriage of 18 in all 50 states. Legislatures need to experience pressure from the public to do so. It is blatantly obvious they know what the loopholes are and how to close them; they need to be pushed to do so.

Second, we need to be doing more to protect teens in this situation; legal exceptions need to be made for minors in abuse shelters. These shelters should be made open for all children seeking refuge, not just children stuck in poor marriages but also children who have abusive parents or guardians.

Third, any marriage licenses given by the state should be made null and void if they are given out before the above-mentioned law so that children stuck in these relationships are able to leave them legally and safely. 

On that same note, children who are being abused should not be able to leave but press charges on their spouses for domestic violence and statutory rape. One law site said, “Domestic violence as a misdemeanor assault charge is essentially the threat of violence and faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail. There is also the most common charge of domestic battery, which is a first-degree misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.” 

This is far too little a sentence for a major crime, especially if that offense is against a minor. Assuming there is evidence and they are found guilty, they should face a much steeper sentence with at least five to ten years in jail. Rape charges are something that needs to be taken more seriously nationwide, not just in the instance of statutory rape. 

Those crimes, if proven guilty, also need to have minimum sentencing, of which I recommend ten years, more if it is against a minor. All these policies would go a long way in protecting the rights of children and preventing child marriage.


So this issue doesn’t just happen abroad, this is a problem that happens in America right now. There are lots of changes we can make to prevent this from happening, we just need to push for it. 

For more information on this topic, I would highly recommend watching TedEd’s videos on the topic. Some are even speeches given by survivors and you can listen to these women, now activists tell their stories. They are very human and very powerful. 

Some women who have grown out of their girlhood and escaped their marriages do become activists. Sherry Johnson, who I mentioned at the beginning did grow up to be a child rights activist and was successful in her push to change Floridian Law. 

People are working to change the law but there is far more work that needs to be done. 

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