Ending child marriage in the US, one state at a time

Friday, 12 May 2017 14:00 GMT

Suhaib Salem / Reuters

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal programme, partnered with advocacy group Unchained At Last to support its fight to pass legislation that would ban child marriage in the US.

Following months of campaigning by Unchained At Last, the New Jersey assembly voted in November 2016 in favour of the new law, and in March 2017, the bill was passed by the state senate.  

Despite the overwhelming support by the state legislature in favour of a blanket ban, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie asked lawmakers to add a clause to the original bill which would continue to allow 16 or 17-year-old children to marry, provided there is a judicial consent.

Christie cited respect for culture and religion as the reasoning behind his decision. Barring his conditional veto on 11 May 2017, the bill would have been automatically passed into law the same day.

It’s increasingly recognised worldwide that child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before the age of 18, is a human rights violation and a serious barrier to socio-economic development.  The US named the fight against child marriage a foreign policy objective, yet ironically, the early or forced marriage of children continues to be a ubiquitous issue within its own borders. 

While most US states set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, exceptions in every jurisdiction exist which allow children younger to wed, typically with parental consent or judicial approval.

As a result of such legal loopholes, more than 167,000 children as young as 12 were married in 38 states in the US between 2000 and 2010, according to marriage licence data collected by Unchained At Last, the only US non-profit dedicated to ending child and forced marriage in the country. No data was provided from the rest of the states, but Unchained estimate nearly a quarter of a million children were married in the US between 2000 and 2010.

Child marriage cuts across all religions, cultures and ethnic groups, and is regularly used to cover up rape cases and teenage pregnancies.

Most children wed in the US are girls married to adult men, often with a significant age gap, and the subsequent impact on the girls’ health, education and economic welfare is devastating and long-lasting. Evidence shows that women who marry as adolescents are exposed to higher risk of life-threatening diseases, mental disorders and domestic violence, and are more likely to drop out of school.

Yet Unchained at Last and other advocates in the same space continue to face overwhelming legal and practical barriers when trying to help child brides.  

“If I help a girl run away from home, someone could accuse me of kidnapping,” says Fraidy Reiss, Founder of Unchained at Last and a forced-marriage survivor. “Besides, most shelters won’t take minors. Even if children can afford attorney fees, which is unlikely, contracts can generally be voided by the child, making children undesirable clients to lawyers. Further, children typically are not allowed to file legal actions in their own names.”

When girls learn how limited their options are, they often give up and go along with the marriage, which they know means rape, as well as giving up all their plans and hopes for their future. Many resort to self-harm or suicide attempts.

Unchained at Last therefore saw legal reform as the only viable solution to put an end to child marriage.

In March 2016, the NGO approached TrustLaw for free legal advice to underpin their advocacy efforts and outlaw child marriage in New Jersey. 

Through connection by TrustLaw, international law firm White & Case developed a legal memorandum which provided the backbone for the non-profit’s campaign to gain legislative support for A3091, the first bill to end child marriage in New Jersey. 

The pro bono lawyers examined existing New Jersey laws that relate to child marriage and identified gaps that would justify legal reform. Issues addressed include emancipation rights, minors’ ability to access domestic violence shelters and initiate legal action, age of consent for sexual intercourse and the use of marriage as a defence against statutory rape claims. 

Despite Christie’s conditional veto to the bill, Unchained at Last continues its partnership with White & Case and TrustLaw, writing, introducing and advocating for legislation state by state to ensure that the entire country enshrine 18 as the absolute minimum age for marriage in law, with no exceptions allowed. The scope of the pro bono research has since been expanded to cover other US states, including California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. 

“We are endlessly grateful to TrustLaw and White & Case, for helping us launch what has become a national movement to end child marriage”, concludes Reiss“Together, we are moving closer to protecting the fundamental rights of children in America.”

Bills to eliminate or curb child marriage are now pending in eight states.

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