The nonprofit Unchained At Last analyzed US marriage license data from 2000 to 2010 and learned that 167,000 children (almost all girls, some as young as 12) in 38 states were married off to older men: 31% of the girls were married to men who were 21 or older. Extrapolating from their data-set, Unchained at Last estimates the true total of child-marriage 2000-2010 as 248,000.
The marriages run counter to US foreign policy, which seeks to reform or punish US trading partners and aid recipients where child marriage is practiced. Domestically, child marriage persists because of “fear that such measures might unlawfully stifle religious freedom or because they cling to the notion that marriage is the best solution for a teen pregnancy.”
Child marriage is correlated with a host of bad outcomes: girls who marry when they’re not yet 19 are 50% as likely to complete highschool and 25% as likely to graduate from college; are 31% more likely to die in poverty; face a 23% higher risk of heart attack / diabetes / cancer / stroke; experience higher-than-average mental health problems; and women who marry before the age of 18 are three times as likely to experience domestic violence.
Many of the children married between 2000 and 2010 were wed to adults significantly older than they were, the data shows. At least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21 or older. (The actual number is probably higher, as some states did not provide spousal ages.) Some children were married at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws. In Idaho, for example, someone 18 or older who has sex with a child under 16 can be charged with a felony and imprisoned for up to 25 years. Yet data from Idaho — which had the highest rate of child marriage of the states that provided data — shows that some 55 girls under 16 were married to men 18 or older between 2000 and 2010.
Many of the states that provided data included categories such as “14 and younger,” without specifying exactly how much younger some brides and grooms were. Thus, the 12-year-olds we found in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina’s data might not have been the youngest children wed in America between 2000 and 2010. Also, the data we collected did not account for children wed in religious-only ceremonies or taken overseas to be married, situations that we at Unchained often see.
Most states did not provide identifying information about the children, but Unchained has seen child marriage in nearly every American culture and religion, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular communities. We have seen it in families who have been in America for generations and immigrant families from all over the world. In my experience, parents who marry off their minor children often are motivated by cultural or religious traditions; a desire to control their child’s behavior or sexuality; money (a bride price or dowry); or immigration-related reasons (for instance, when a child sponsors a foreign spouse). 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.