Forty children are married each day – the statistic comes not from India, but from the USA. There is no federal law that bans child marriage.
“We are trying to solve a problem that most Americans don’t even know exists! It is a well-kept secret in US,” says Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Executive Director of Unchained at Last, a non-profit organisation that supports victims, and organises to raise marriage age.
More than 3,00,000 minors have been legally wed in the last two decades, some as young as 10 years. A majority of these – 86 percent – were girls wed to adult men, glaringly older in many cases.
Survivors Steer Movement to Ban Child Marriages
Child marriage is legal in 44 of the 50 US states. Only six states have enacted laws to set the minimum marriage age at 18 years, that too in the last three years.
In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey became the first states to end child marriage, followed by Minnesota and Pennsylvania in 2020, and New York and Rhode Island in 2021.
Unchained at Last, whose unconventional bridal gown chain-in protests became eye-catching and Tahirih Justice Center, led the lobbying. Tahirih Justice Center is a non-profit that works for immigrants fleeing gender-based violence, and refers to the recent tide as a national movement to ban child marriage.
Steering the movement are women survivors – former child brides – bringing their stories to US State Capitols, “I had to email each and every Assembly member and Senator in the state (New York), over 200 to 300 lawmakers. It took two-and-a-half years,” recalls Naila Amin. The resulting 2021 New York law is named after her – Naila’s Law. In 2018, she successfully convinced New Jersey to raise the minimum marriage age to 18.
Just at eight years, Naila was engaged to an older cousin during a family visit to Pakistan and forced to wed when she was only 13. Her then husband’s US visa was based on the marriage. Beaten and raped, eventually Naila fled into foster care. She founded The Naila Amin Foundation.
'What Happened to Me Is a Continuing Crisis for South Asian Diaspora in US'
Another survivor and activist Sasha Taylor left a long career as an analyst with FBI to influence legislators and media.
“News about girls from Afghanistan being forced into marriages on the tarmac made me cry. It’s going to happen all over again if we do not change laws,” said Sasha, who became a visa bride at the age of 15.
Raised in Karachi by a grandmother who was from Ajmer, Sasha joined her parents in US when she was eight. A few years on, teenager Sasha returned from school one day to be quickly put into salwar-kameez and engaged to a stranger.
“I kept asking - what’s happening. Ma said - chup raho (be quiet). Everyone started hugging each other,” recalls Sasha. The 15-year-old was forced to wed, but was determined to flee the rape and isolation that followed. She charted her path to college and divorce and started a media company – Reality of a Desi Girl. “What happened to me is a continuing crisis in South Asian diaspora in US!” says Sasha.
She now wants to plug the loophole that lets families marry their US citizen minors for visa sponsorships.
Child Marriages Not Restricted to Immigrant Communities
Forced to Marry Him: A Lifetime of Tradition and the Will to Break It’ is Davinder Kaur’s story in a book. She immigrated to the US after escaping her forced marriage in the UK.
The author recalls, “He was drunk. He attacked and raped me. He was strangling me. My dad said – your husband has every right to do that.” The teenage bride ran away that night from both men. At her book readings, Davinder finds women reaching out to her, “Forced and child marriages are not uncommon among desi diaspora. They are very hush-hush about it. When I speak at public events, women come up to me to share,” says Davinder.
Child marriages are not confined to immigrant communities in the richest nation.
“We have helped survivors and rescued victims from every background – a lot from families in the US for many generations, Americans whose origins lie not only in Asia and Africa, but also Europe, Canada, South America. We have helped Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus,” says Fraidy Reiss, a survivor herself.
“I was forced to marry in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community. I grew up in a very fundamentalist Jewish, ultra-insular, extremely religious community in New Jersey. In fundamentalist fringes of major religions, forced and child marriage are very common,” she adds.
What is the Permissible Age for Marriage as Per US State Laws?
Permissible age for marriage in the US is governed by state laws – a baffling array. States have set different minimum age ranging from 0 to 19 years. Nine states continue to have no minimum age limit, including California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Legal age of consent for sex is higher than legal minimum age for marriage in these states. In others with age limits, minors as young as 12 years can marry with parental and/or judicial consent. Judges have no legal basis for saying no.
Activists run into legal road blocks.
“How do we allow this in a progressive state? Along with Californian child marriage survivors, we were trying to push the bill in California’s capital. But American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill. Their argument was that they know a lot of teenagers who need to be married to get separated from abusive households and parents. It got lost there,” says Aditi Wahi-Singh, a clinical social worker at Simms/Mann-UCLA Center.
Aditi researched social and mental health effects of child marriage in the US, as part of her Masters at University of Southern California. Minors have limited legal rights, most domestic violence shelters don’t accept them and most states forbid them from filing for divorce without parental approval, making it nearly impossible for children who experience marital violence to get help, or even run away.
Survivors Urge Legislators to Impose Nationwide Ban on Child Marriages
Tahirih Justice Center research shows that child marriage happens for a variety of reasons, including cover-ups for rape. Some state prosecutors do not convict a man for rape if the man marries the girl.
A few states still follow a pregnancy exception, which allows a minor girl to get married if she is pregnant or has already given birth, and has consent from a parent. Legislators usually don’t consider abortions. Reiss questions, “A girl has no choice but to get married even if she was raped. In the US of 21st century, elected officials are saying that! How are you not embarrassed to say it out loud?”
Proponents of raising the marriage age have started a national movement to persuade Americans that child marriages are not always about high school romance. Bills have been introduced in dozens of state legislatures. Increasing media coverage has brought focus on child brides trapped in violent relationships, that keep them undereducated, poor, and unhealthy. Moreover, 80 percent of such marriages end in divorce.
Former child brides want legislators to grasp that raising minimum marriage age in only a few states creates child marriage havens in other states. It is a national problem in the US – it needs a nationwide ban.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)