Child marriage is commonly discussed as an overseas problem, but it is a human rights violation pervasive in the United States as well.
A new report by the Tahirih Justice Center shows that between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 children, the majority of whom were girls, were forced into marriage with much older partners, the majority of whom were men.
Children as young as 12 have been married with the consent of their parents, a legal loophole that remains a key factor in the issue of child marriage.
"From our experience, when a child is forced into a marriage, the perpetrator is almost always the parents," Fraidy Reiss, founder of the nonprofit Unchained At Last, explained to HuffPost. "But these children are not all coming out of abusive, violent, dysfunctional homes. It's often parents who think they are doing the best thing for their child."
While most states set the minimum age of consent to marriage at 18, all states but Texas, New York, and Virginia offer exceptions. Parental consent and approval from a judge are ways to circumvent the age requirement, and in devoutly religious communities that subscribe to archaic interpretations of scripture, this can be a tool to keep tragic practices alive.
Furthermore, in an alarming 25 states, there is no age "floor," so children of any age could be married to men decades older than them as long as the loopholes remain in place.
The effects of forced marriage on young girls are devastating, and the report states that because of their legal status as minors, they do not have the same protections as adult women would.
"...when a child marries an adult, an unequal power dynamic is created that puts the child at risk of abuse. Domestic violence, which involves one party's exploitation of power and control over the other, is highly likely," states the study.
Most child marriages end in divorce, but sadly not soon enough in some cases. If an underage girl attempts to flee an abusive marriage, laws in some states prevent her from seeking safety in shelters and with friends. On the books, she is a runaway, and anyone helping her could be charged with aiding in the delinquency of a minor.
Landlords are highly unlikely to rent to her as well, and young mothers in particular are at a greatly increased risk of living in deep poverty. In certain states, it is near impossible for a child forced into marriage to file for their own divorce, which is darkly ironic considering the laxity of the laws allowing them to marry in the first place.
However, the solution lies in those lax laws, or more specifically in their eradication. If states were to follow the lead of Texas, Virginia, and New York and tighten their marriage laws, it would go a long way to eliminate child marriage and save the lives of thousands of children.
"It's easy and cheap to do that — clerks need only check IDs," Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Justice Center's senior counsel for policy and strategy, told Broadly. "Rarely do we get a chance to make such a tremendous difference in the whole trajectory of a girl's life, and in her future family's life, than to make a change in laws that's so simple."
Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr user Cary Bass-Deschenes