Does Child Marriage Occur in North America?

By Kim Boucher Morin
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

When we think of child marriage, most of us picture a young bride in a distant under-developed land. Surely early or forced marriages do not occur in the well-developed west, do they? Well, they do. In reality, such marriages occur in a variety of countries and affect a multitude of people, all for one universally burdensome reason: gender inequality. While some may point to religious beliefs or cultural customs as the problem, the dark truth is that, across the world, girls lack the agency to make decisions about their lives and sexuality.

Unchained at Last estimates that 250,000 individuals under 18, most of them girls, were married in the United States between 2000 and 2010. Data on this topic within developed countries is limited, both because studies on early marriage tend to be conducted where it is most pervasive, and because there is a certain stigma attached to admitting the occurrence of these human rights violations. Research is clear on one thing, however: early, arranged and forced marriages do happen in Canada and the United States.

The consequences of early marriage for young brides are well documented. In February 2017, Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post stating that early marriage has negative impacts on girls’ health, education, self-worth. She added that young brides experience significantly increased economic dependence and higher likelihood of domestic violence. Studies also show that child marriage can cause intergenerational effects, with the children of young brides being more susceptible to lower education levels and stunted development.[i] Furthermore, in the rare cases where girls are able to avoid or refuse child marriage, they may find themselves ostracized or isolated from their communities.

Early marriage is clearly not an issue to be taken lightly, yet children under 18 still retain the right to get married in Canada and the United States. Although the age of consent for marriage in Canada is determined by the age of majority set by each province or territory, individuals as young as 16 can marry with parental or court consent.[ii] In the US, most states also set the age of marriage at 18; however, 23 states allow children to wed between the ages of 13 and 17 with parental or court consent and 27 states do not even have a minimum age with such consent.[iii]

Just recently, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in the New York Times about an 11-year-old girl in Florida forced to marry her rapist. The marriage put an end to investigations by child welfare authorities after the young girl became pregnant. To offer a point of reference, she was wed and forced to become a mother 10 years before she was legally allowed to drink alcohol in the US. How could the law – meant to protect citizens – enable a rapist to use marriage as a legal loophole to escape punishment?

In light of the known consequences suffered by child brides, it seems obvious that individuals should not be permitted to marry until they are legally able to give consent at the age of 18. Yet, in May, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rejected a bill that would have made his state the first to set the legal age of marriage at 18 without exceptions. He justified his decision by saying it would “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities.” Of course cultural sensitivity is fair, but only insofar as it does not enable the perpetration of human rights abuses.

There is still a lot of work to be done to combat the issue of early marriage, and every action counts. I urge you to learn more about the work of organizations dedicated to fighting gender inequality, such as Girls Not Brides, Unchained at Last, Save the Children, and Plan Canada. These organizations aim not only to change legislation, but also to create inclusive and supportive community environments for women and girls who have experienced child marriage. You can also ask your elected officials to prioritize the issue and request that more information be made available on the subject.

__________________________________________

[i] Efevbera, Yvette, et al. “Girl child marriage as a risk factor for early childhood development and stunting.” Social Science & Medicine 185 (2017): 91-101.

[ii] Civil Marriage Act, Statutes of Canada 2005, 2.2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-31.5/page-1.html

[iii] Marriage Laws of the Fifty States, District of Colombia and Puerto Rico, Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/table_marriage#e