While walking on my treadmill a few months ago, I began watching a show on Netflix called Chicago Med. It’s probably been around a while, but as a single mom of young children, I never get to watch TV unless it involves Ninjas or superheroes. In this one episode, a man in his 40s brought a 14-year-old pregnant girl into the hospital. Everyone thought she was his daughter until he announced that she was his wife. It seems that in Michigan, children as young as 14 can get married to adult men. This got me wondering, is child marriage legal in the United States?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is yes. In the United States, each state and territory can set the marriage age either by the common law or by individual statutes. In most of the states in the U.S., the minimum age for minors with parental consent ranges from 12 to 17.
There are some states such as California and Mississippi, that do not have a minimum age at all. Also, some states have a different minimum age for males and females, with or without parental consent. Of all the states in the U.S., Massachusetts has the youngest minimum age with parental consent. Twelve years old for girls and 14 for boys.
- How Could Child Marriage Be Legal?
- U.S. Child Marriage Statistics
- The Number of Children Married in Each State Between 2000-2018
- Are There Any States That Have Banned Child Marriage?
- Why Does the United States Continue to Allow Child Marriage?
- Three True-Life Stories of Children Forced to Marry
- Related Articles
How Could Child Marriage Be Legal?
Technically, it is not legal in any state in the U.S. because the minimum marriage age in the majority of the states is 18. However, there are conditions that have to be met for a child to marry an adult.
- They must have the consent of the parents or legal guardian
- They may also need to have the consent of a court clerk or judge
- If the child is pregnant or has given birth to a child
- If the child is an emancipated minor.
So even though child marriage isn’t technically legal, there are some loopholes that make it allowable.
U.S. Child Marriage Statistics
Between the years 2000 and 2015, there have been about 200,000 child marriages in the U.S. Of the 200,000, 67% of the children were 17, 29% were 16, 4% were 15, less than 1% were 14 or under, and there were 51 cases of 13-year-olds getting married and 6 cases of 12-year-olds getting married. Child marriage is more common in the southern states, including West Virginia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina. However, California and Nevada also have a high number of child marriages.
Of these statistics, there have been some pretty extreme cases.
- In 2010, a 65-year-old man wed a 17-year-old girl in Idaho.
- In Alabama, a 74-year-old man wed a 14-year-old girl.
- In Tennessee, three 10-year-old girls married three different men, ages 24, 25, and 31.
- The youngest boy to get married was 11 years old. He married a 27-year-old Tennessee woman in 2006.
The Number of Children Married in Each State Between 2000-2018
Are There Any States That Have Banned Child Marriage?
Since 2018, there have been six states that have banned all marriages before the age of 18. These states are Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New York. Some states have tightened their laws concerning child marriage, but most will still allow teens to marry with parental and a judge’s consent. Other states still allow a 14 or 15-year-old to marry, and nine states have no minimum marriage age at all, including California.
Why Does the United States Continue to Allow Child Marriage?
According to Unicef USA, the biggest hurdle to ending child marriage in the United States is the lack of awareness. In a survey conducted in 2021, nearly half of all Americans questioned thought that child marriage was already illegal in the United States. I have to admit that I am included in that half. I had no idea child marriage was legal anywhere in the United States, let alone the majority of the states.
Of the remaining participants in the survey, most thought that the practice of child marriage was only legal in five or fewer states. Without citizens being aware that child marriage is still legal, elected officials don’t see much importance in pushing for legislation to outlaw child marriage. They assume it isn’t really an issue when the truth is, people don’t know it’s still legal!
Three True-Life Stories of Children Forced to Marry
When Aliya was a senior in high school, her uncle and his wife, her legal guardians, pulled her out of school in Maryland and brought her to Pakistan, telling her they were visiting relatives. Instead, they married her off to a complete stranger and then left and returned to the United States.
If it weren’t for the loophole in Maryland Law, which allows children to be married off with parental consent, this wouldn’t have happened. She describes her life with her husband as tortuous, abusive, and toxic, and she was soon pregnant and caring for two young children.
During the process of getting immigration status for her husband, she got on the phone and canceled his petition and escaped back to the United States with her two children. She then juggled being a mother to babies still needing to be breastfed and going to college in order to make a name for herself and support her children.
Pat was just 12 years old when she attempted suicide. When she called a local crisis hotline, they referred her to a man who was a third-year missionary student. He became her counselor and convinced her parents she didn’t need antidepressants anymore.
When his apartment caught on fire, he convinced her parents to let him move in their basement, and it was then that he started sexually abusing her. Eventually, she became pregnant, and her parents were ashamed. They told her she could only keep her child if she married the man. So she was forced to marry a man that was 27 years old.
When her newborn daughter was two weeks old, her parents couldn’t stop her husband from beating her, so they told them they had to move out. For the next 14 months, Pat had to juggle finishing junior high, keeping house, and trying to keep herself and her baby alive. She begged her parents to help and told them she feared for their lives, but they refused.
It wasn’t until she started seeing a therapist who discovered that she was being beaten almost daily that she was moved to a shelter for battered children. Not battered women, because she was still just a child. They also had the child removed from the home as well.
Jean was just 14 when she met a man at the waffle house where she worked. She lived in a two-room garage apartment with her mother and her 12-year-old sister, attended school during the day, and worked at night.
Eventually, they moved to another place 10 miles away, and she got a job waitressing in the evening. It turned out that the man made deliveries at a store behind where she worked, and he started helping out at her home by mowing the yard and would sometimes take Jean and her sister to the movies.
Her mother started pressuring her to marry the man because they were so poor. She said that if Jean didn’t marry him, then she would. The mother and this man had made an arrangement whereby he agreed to make her go to school and support her and that when she turned 18, they could divorce. Jean was 15, and he was 27 when they got married.
Right after the honeymoon, she tried to get away and ran away to a relative’s home. But they called her husband, and he came and picked her up. They told her that she had made her bed now she had to lie in it. Her husband then told her that she had to submit to anything he said, and she was pregnant in three months. Throughout the pregnancy, she was very sick, and then less than two years later, she was pregnant again.
Her husband did what he wanted and went wherever he wanted, and she was happy because he was away from her. He had a terrible temper, and they were all afraid of him. She finally got the courage to divorce him, but not without a lot of trouble and heartache.
This is just a tiny glimpse of the vast abuse happening right here in the United States. If you want to read more survivors’ stories or help educate the general public or even your legislators, visit unchainedatlast.org.
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.