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America’s Child Marriage Problem

Child marriage leads to death, divorce, domestic abuse, and poverty. So why are states so lenient about it?

Child marriage sounds like something from the middle ages. What could be more barbaric than getting forced into a life of marriage before you’re old enough to have a say in the matter. You aren’t old enough to adopt a puppy, drive late at night, or play the lottery, but getting married? Surprisingly easy in most of the United States.

To be sure, the problem of child marriage is more common in certain parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa 4 of every 10 girls marry before turning 18. In South Asia, it’s 3 in 10. But, child marriage is a worldwide epidemic that happens every day, right in our own backyard. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S.

A child bride with her father

THE LAW SAYS CHILD MARRIAGE IS ILLEGAL, RIGHT?

Not really. There is no federal law restricting child marriage — it’s up to the states. And while most states have allowed child marriage historically, times are changing.

In May 2018, Delaware became the first state in the U.S. to make it illegal for children under age 18 to get married, with or without parental consent. New Jersey did the same in June 2018. This summer, Pennsylvania unanimously voted to follow suit. All other 47 states allows girls under the age of 18 to marry once they’ve obtained some combination of a judge’s order, parental permission, premarital counseling, or proof of pregnancy.

WHY ARE CHILDREN GETTING MARRIED?

Some parents believe marrying before the age of 18 is the best course of action if their daughter becomes pregnant. Others think a ban on child marriage infringes on religious freedoms. The problem is compounded in states where abortion is either difficult or impossible.

Marrying before the age of 18 puts girls on a nearly irreversible path towards poverty and often leads to domestic violence, rape, and greater risk of death in childbirth.

“Teen brides are nearly three times as likely to have at least five children. Their chance of living in poverty is 31 percent higher. And they’re 50 percent more likely to drop out of school.” The Washington Post

In many states, lacking the legal standing to file for divorce, they become trapped in abusive relationships, and are unable to runaway.

WHERE IS THIS HAPPENING?

In your own backyard. Your author grew up in St. Louis, Missouri — a state with the reputation of having the most lenient child marriage laws in the U.S. From 1999 to 2015, more than 1,000 15-year-olds married in Missouri. Of those 1,000 girls more than 300 of them married men aged 21 or older, with some in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

The law allows for underage sex with a minor if married, and for many, this is a long exploited loophole condoning statutory rape.

“Rates of underage marriage are high in southern, rural states with a high prevalence of poverty and religious conservatism, as well as among Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs, and Hmongs,” says campaign group Unchained At Last.

St. Louis wedding chapel condoning child marriage

MEET HEATHER, A 15 YEAR OLD BRIDE

In May 2016, a judge convicted Heather Strawn’s father for “promoting a vile farce of a marriage,” between his daughter and Aaron Seaton — a soon to be registered sex offender. Aaron had “plied her with alcohol before having sex with her inside his camper parked next to the I-I Fly shop in Ashton, Idaho.Kansas City

Heather and Andrew married nine months pregnant on the night of her 15th birthday after a 17-hour drive to Kansas City. A city where the signature of one parent can change a girl’s life forever. Back in their home state of Idaho, Heather’s mom alerted the authorities who annulled the marriage and arrested the father.

MEET ASHLEY, MARRIED AT 15

Ashley Duncan (15) was picked up by her guardians from school to take her to the chapel after discovering she was a month pregnant by her 18-year-old boyfriend. Ten years later, the couple, while still legally married, is long separated. Ashley was bullied for getting married and dropped out of school. Two years later, violent arguments began happening at home. So, Ashley picked up her two sons and left.

MEET SORONA, GROOMED TO MARRY

An evangelical Christian, Sonora Fairbanks was groomed to marry a man ten years her senior when she turned 16. Eight children later, she was financially trapped with nowhere to go. If she ran away, she’d most likely be brought back to the husband she was trying to escape. Divorce isn’t an option without parental consent. Women’s shelters don’t accept children under 18, and landlords won’t rent to minors.

CHILD MARRIAGE IS AN END, NOT A BEGINNING

These children’s stories all share a similar path. Young women become pregnant and are forced, coerced, or groomed to marry older men, often their attackers or rapists. They often drop out of school to care for their child. Marriage frequently spirals into domestic abuse. Laws make it difficult or impossible to flee. Later in life, many child marriages lead to divorce, but the new independence comes with financial obligations that many young women aren’t prepared for, having cut their education short. Some husbands end up in jail. Others leave. But, there are a few bright spots. Ashley Duncan who managed to escape her marriage, later met a pipe-fitter and fell in love.

THE MOVEMENT TOWARDS CHANGE

12 million girls marry before age 18 every year. That’s one every three seconds. And it isn’t just happening in other countries. Reform across the US is gaining momentum. Missouri recently raised the minimum age to marry from 15 to 16 and barred young girls from marrying men over the age of 21. But, a remarkable assortment of exceptions are still permitted. Parental and or judge permission allows girls as young as 14 to marry in certain states.

HOW CAN YOU HELP END CHILD MARRIAGE

We believe that love is given, not taken. As a modern engagement and wedding ring brand, we feel passionately that marriage is a joint decision. That’s why this October, we’re doing something about it. Want to help? Join us on October 11th, The International Day of The Girl, and let’s put an end to child marriage, forever. Stay tuned for more.