It has been estimated that between 2000 and 2010 – the most current data available – 248,00 children were married before their 18th birthday. Most of the minors were girls, some were as young as 12 years old, and a majority were wed to men 18 years or older. These alarming figures were published by a non-profit organization whose legislative mission is to change existing laws ending childhood marriage – no exceptions.
The organization, “Unchained At Last,” was founded by Fraidy Reiss who was forced into marriage by her Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents at the age of 19. Two kids and twelve years later she escaped her abuser and now works to help other girls and women of an arranged or a forced marriage find legal counsel and support.
Unchained gathered the state-by-state marriage license facts; however, much of her data is on the State Department’s website.
“The U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, released last year by the State Department, lists reducing child, early and forced marriage as a key goal. The strategy includes harsh words about marriage before 18, declaring it a “human rights abuse that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood” by forcing her into “adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature.”
Reiss argues competently against a few of our laws that would otherwise be in front of an abusive environment. Whether a parent consents to an underage marriage or forces it, the distressed child’s choices are limited.
Adults being pressured in this way have options, including access to domestic-violence shelters. But a child who leaves home is considered a runaway; the police try to return her to her family and could even charge our organization criminally if we were to get involved. Most domestic-violence shelters do not accept minors, and youth shelters typically notify parents that their children are there. Child-protective services are usually not a solution, either: Caseworkers point out that preventing legal marriages is not in their mandate.
Those fleeing a forced marriage often have complex legal needs, but for children, obtaining legal representation is extremely difficult. Even if they can afford to pay attorney’s fees, contracts with children, including retainer agreements, generally can be voided by the child, making them undesirable clients to lawyers. Further, children typically are not allowed to file legal actions in their own names.
Substantial opposition to Reiss’ legislation is from officials uncomfortable with a law that could potentially affect religious freedom. She makes a valid argument here.
Nor does ending child marriage illegally infringe on religious rights. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that incidentally forbid an act required by religion, if the laws do not specifically target religious practice. Besides, most religions tend to describe marriage as an important union between two willing partners.
That sounds nothing like child marriage, which often is forced and which has close to a 70 percent chance of ending in divorce. “There was a concern that we would be offending certain cultures within our society,” said D-New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who introduced the unsuccessful bill last year to end child marriage in her state. “So instead of seeing this as an abuse of young women, [some legislators] were seeing this as something we needed to protect for certain cultures.”
Here’s where Reiss’ article gets especially interesting. She wants an end to all marriages for anyone less than 18 years old. She cites a significantly higher chance of physical and mental health problems as well as poverty, abuse, and a forfeited education. That’s not all.
And of course, many minors marry of their own volition – even though in most realms of life, our laws do not allow children to make such high-stakes adult decisions.
Ahh, there it is. I believe Reiss is saying that our marriage laws should protect a minor from having to make a decision even an adult could not remotely predict its consequences. And, to her other point, because parents are sometimes judgement-impaired, some laws governing an adolescent’s activity should be firm and without exception. A guy selling cigarettes isn’t going to give one flip that the 16 year-olds’ parents said it was ok. Limiting personal or parental consent to 18 will not altogether stop childhood marriage, but it will give its officiate pause to consider.
I would like to add another high-stakes adult choice a young girl is ill-equipped to make:
What should be the fate of another’s existence?
Coalition for Positive Sexuality explains how to manipulate the abortion system. How effective can current laws be if a pubescent child is able to outmaneuver them?
If you are thinking about an abortion and live where there is a Parental Consent/Notification law, it’s a good idea to call a clinic in your state (or the Abortion Hotline at 1-800-772-9100 or Abortion Clinics Online) and talk with someone about your options. Usually you can get around telling your parents by going to a clinic in a state without these restrictions or, explaining your situation to a judge (this is called Judicial Bypass). But this can take time, so call right away
If Unchained at Last succeeds in adjusting marriage statutes to protect young girls from choices neither offspring nor parent is deemed by law competent to make, then the state would be asserting dominion over outcomes a child could not reasonably foresee. As far as life choices go, marriage is big, but abortion is bigger.
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