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Why Are Some States Quietly Trying to Make It Easier to Marry Young Girls

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While reproductive rights continue to be an ongoing fight, and women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented in politics, there’s a political issue related to women that barely gets discussed in whispers: child marriage.

The map above shows every state’s minimum legal marrying age, as defined by the law. For example, according to a report by Tahirih Justice Center, in New Hampshire, the legal age to marry is 18 for both women and men. But you can get judicial approval for boys over age 14 and girls 13 or older to marry. Several states, including Georgia, Michigan, Idaho, and Massachusetts, only require proof of age in specific circumstances, and nine states specifically use pregnancy as a factor in lowering the minimum marriage age. According to Tahirih Justice Center, these loopholes leave “girls less protected than boys from forced marriages and the harms of early marriage.”

More than 200,000 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2015, with Idaho, Kentucky, and Arkansas having the highest rates of child marriage of anywhere in the nation. So, it seems particularly alarming that, earlier this year,  Republican lawmakers who control the Idaho State Legislature opposed a bill to end child marriage in the state, noting that the bill “went too far.”

Over the summer, Louisiana agreed to ban marriage under the age of 16, allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to get married if they had the consent of parents and a judge who abided by criteria, like age difference and extenuating circumstances. Meanwhile, it was estimated that 1,200 children in Massachusetts, whose State Senate voted to ban child marriage in the state in July, were married between 2000 and 2016. They’re examples of a flurry of similar bills that have been debated without significant attention. In reality, until 2018, all U.S. states technically permitted child marriage, before Delaware and New Jersey banned marriage under the age of 18.

Refusal to ban child marriage makes it more accessible, which is alarming given that there are no federal laws when it comes to child marriage. Each state is left to make their own laws, which means that 25 states set no minimum age required for marriage at all. In some cases, that means 14- and 15-year-olds, people barely out of middle school and unable to drive, vote, or drink legally, could get married with a parent’s consent. Over 5,000 individuals were granted approval to bring fiancees under the age of 18 into the United States between 2007 and 2017. This included two minors who were 13 years old, and 38 who were 14. 

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So why would any state stall on banning child marriage? Of all the things we’re fighting for in 2019, child marriage seems like one that should be agreed upon as forcefully toxic: According to UNICEF, girls who marry before they’re 18 are more likely to drop out of school, and more likely to die in childbirth; their chances of living in poverty double while the chances of spousal abuse triple. Child marriage also disproportionately affects girls and women, given that 85% of children married between 2000 and 2010 were girls, according to marriage records from 38 states. Unchained At Last, an organization dedicated to ending childhood marriage in the United States, reported that 77% of married children were minor girls married to adult men, sometimes with the spousal age difference that should constitute statutory rape under state laws.

While the impact on young women who become child brides is demonstrably negative, with ramifications that could potentially define everything from her education level to how many children she has, there’s a litany of justifications for allowing individuals under the age of 18 to get married: Pregnancy. A Romeo and Juliet-style “true love” that can’t wait. Teens marrying before one of them is deployed, if one partner is serving in the military. Parental abuse. What makes outright marriage bans, or age limits, complicated, at least according to statements by those who vote against it, is that it feels impossible to legislate someone’s personal circumstances and feelings: Even the ACLU argued that a California bill setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 “intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause.” What makes the pivot bizarre, however, is that the United States Federal Government considers marriage under the age of 18 a human rights abuse in other countries.

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There’s also the gutting irony of Republican legislators believing that the government shouldn’t have a role in marriage or consent at all, despite their collective eagerness to intervene when it comes to LGBTQ rights, including marriage, or a woman’s right to her own body. It’s a logic gap that attempts to hyper-legislate decisions like gay marriage, a choice between two consenting adults, or birth control and abortion, a choice made by a person about their own body and reproductive health, while dismissing the futures of vulnerable young women under “freedom of choice.” These bills, and the fact that this is still up for debate nationwide in 2019, is another example of political power being flexed in the wrong ways; sometimes taking away her choices, sometimes refusing to protect her from what shouldn’t be a choice in the first place.