By Lucinda Boyd
Child marriage is a serious problem in the United States, affecting thousands of children each year. “Child marriage” is defined as anyone under age 18 and the laws for such marriages vary widely state by state.
Many people don’t know that child marriage still happens in the United States. Some think that child marriage in the United States only occurs in rural areas and in conservative, religious households. While this was historically the case, nowadays child marriage occurs all across the demographic spectrum, although in most cases the victims are girls. Each year 12 million girls are married around the world.
Child marriage is a violation of Article 16 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” In 2016, the U.S. Department of State published a document that expressed child marriage in other countries to be a denial of human rights, yet it remains legal in the majority of the United States. The United Nations has defined child marriage as “an appalling violation of human rights,” because no one is mature enough to consent to marriage before age 18. Child marriage is considered to be the most common form of sexual exploitation of girls.
Child marriage should also be recognized as a form of human trafficking. The United Nations Trafficking Protocol of 2000, an international protocol joined by the United States in December of 2000, defines trafficking as “the recruitment… transfer… or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation.” This definition can be applied to child marriage because the child is being transferred from an adult (parent/guardian) to another adult (husband) and often ends up being mistreated and sexually abused. The protocol criminalizes trafficking acts, with no exceptions for religious traditions and practices. This includes whether the minor consented or not. Child marriage fits these parameters and should be criminalized.
Many of the girls who are married as children experience long-term physical and sexual abuse. The age differential between the girl and her husband often gives the male the ability to dominate and control their younger, vulnerable wives. Child brides often experience a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes.
Young girls and young women are at much higher risk of maternal and infant deaths, compared to women who have children after age 20. They also have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. In comparison to women who first married as adults, research has found those who first married as a child have a higher likelihood of suffering from psychiatric disorders throughout their lifetimes, such as depression, addictions, phobias, anxiety and antisocial personality disorder.
These women also have extreme difficulties leaving the marriage because of the lack of access to lawyers, shelters and counseling. Due to their age, minors cannot file any type of legal action, including divorce. Without access to these resources, it is nearly impossible to get help.
In April 2018, Arizona raised the minimum marriage age to 16. Such underage marriages must be approved by a superior court, must have either parental consent or an emancipated minor, and the age differences between the parties must not be more than three years.
Our children deserve better. Child marriage must be prohibited by law in all states. We must protect our children and give them the best possible chance for the future.
Join us for 16 days of activism beginning Nov. 25, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and concludes on Dec. 10, which is International Human Rights Day.
Lucinda Boyd is president of Zonta Club of Maricopa.