Why America still permits child marriage
CHILD marriage is common in the developing world. One in three girls there is believed to marry before the age of 18, which is how child marriage is generally defined. If the practice is not reduced, another 1.2bn women will have married as children by 2050. Almost all of the countries in the top 20 spots in a ranking of states with the highest rates of child marriage are African. Far less well-known is the prevalence of the practice in America—and almost always among girls. The country’s diplomats are active in international efforts to ban it abroad, but American children are still permitted to marry (albeit, usually, with parental consent and the approval of a judge or a clerk). No American state has passed a law that categorically forbids the practice.
Child marriage is most common in conservative religious communities and poor, rural areas. But it can be found in all socio-economic strata and in secular, as well as pious, families. More than 207,000 American minors were married between 2000 and 2015, according to an investigation by Frontline, a television programme. Over two-thirds were 17 years old, but 985 were 14, and ten were just 12. Twenty-seven states have no minimum age for marriage. Encouragingly, the practice has become less common in recent years. This reflects changing social norms, higher rates of school attendance for girls and a decline in marriage generally. Whereas 23,500 minors got married in 2000, that figure had dropped to a little over 9,000 by 2010. Yet even as recently as 2014 more than 57,000 minors aged 15 to 17 were married. They entered perhaps the most important legal contract of their lives while, in most cases, not being considered legal adults. This means they cannot file for divorce, sign rental leases or seek protection in a shelter if they are abused.