Child Marriage is a Reality in the U.S.

Wedding rings on a lace stand close-up // Photo courtesy Marco Verch

BY TAMARA SAADE –

Aliya was 20 when she was pregnant with her daughter and playing with her one-year-old son in her uncle’s basement, in Maryland.  She was trying to persuade her uncle to allow her out of the marriage she was forced into. “The only way you’re going to get out of this marriage is if you die, he told me,” Aliya said.

In January of 2002, Aliya, who asked to be identified by her first name only, was pulled out of school, forced to travel to Pakistan with her uncle and his wife

, her legal guardians, and was married to a 25-year-old-man she never met before. She was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time. Aliya is among the 200,000 minors married within the U.S. between 2000 and 2015.

“In our foreign policy, we talk about child brides as a human rights violation and that’s all outward facing,” said Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney at Equality Now, an organization fighting against child marriage. “It’s somewhat hypocritical to advocate the other countries that don’t permit child marriage, when in 48 states in the U.S. a child can marry.”

Child marriage is more prevalent in the U.S. than a lot of people think, according to Sabrina Moldt, the director of Policy and Advocacy at Unchained at Last, another organization fighting to end child marriage.  “A lot of times, people hear of it and say ‘well that happens on the other side of the world, but not here in America, and certainly not in my state.’ Unfortunately, we’ve seen that that’s not the case, that happens here and it happens with shocking frequency,” Moldt said.

Women married before the age of 18 are three times more likely to experience domestic violence, more likely to earn lower wages than live in poverty, according to Unchained at Last.

As of 2018, only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, have set 18 as the bottom age limit for  both parties to get married. On April 19, Maryland’s legislature failed to pass a law that would prevent any minors under 18 from getting married. To this day, 16-year-old can get married with parental consent, and 15-years-old can get married if they give birth. As an activist fighting to end child marriage, Aliya’s experience was used as a testimony in favor of the bill that would have set the marriage age at 18, without exception.  

  “I was taken out of the country,” Aliya said. “My uncle and his wife made me believe I was going back to Pakistan to see my relatives. But within a few weeks I was married off to a complete stranger. I was left there, not only with him, but with his family as well.” Like many others, Aliya’s marriage happened because of a loophole in Maryland’s law: it allows minors to get married with parental consent. In more than 20 states, minors of any age can get married if they meet their states’ requirements of :either parental or judicial consent.

“In Pennsylvania, the state I’m currently focusing on, the marriage age is 18, but they have two dangerous loopholes,” Moldt said, “The first is that 16 and 17 year olds can be married with parental consent. And the second is that children under the age of 16, so 15 down to zero can marry with judicial approval and parental consent.”

Other loopholes in the laws allow child marriages to happen. When it comes to the sexual abuse of a minor, marriage can be used a legal defense, if a perpetrator and his victim are married at the time of the assault.

“This means in the federal statutory rape law, there is an exception if you’re married to the child,” Kelly said.

In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security released a report showing that between 2007 and 2017, more than 8,000 spouse or fiancé applications involving minors were approved by the immigration services.   

When Aliya broke off her marriage at 20, she was pregnant with her second child. “The first thing I thought was ‘I am worthy. My children are worthy. Our lives are worthy’,” Aliya said. “My second thought was ‘Do I really want to live this life? Do I want to be stuck in this torture and abuse forever and raise my children with an abusive father and in a toxic environment? No, we deserve better!” I then picked up the phone and I cancelled my husband at the time’s immigration process. He’s not coming here. I only thought about me and my kids.” It took about two years to finalize the divorce, but the impact of child marriage persisted for much longer.

“It’s a traumatic experience to be forcefully married to off as a kid,” said Aliya. “It impacted my whole life. It took a toll on me, mentally, physically, and emotionally.”

Child brides are three times more likely to have at least five children or more in close succession Moldt explained. “That explains why they’re dropping out of school. Because they forfeited education and the number of children that they have, young married girls in the U.S. are 31 percent more likely to live in poverty when they’re older.  Beyond that, they’re 23 percent more likely to have diabetes, heart attack, cancer, stroke, and quite literally every mental health disorder you can think of. The U.S. State Department has called marriage before the age of 18 a human rights abuse. And it truly is a human rights abuse, which is why even if one child is married in a state, that is one too many.”

Organizations such as Unchained at Last, Equality Now, the International Center for Research on Women, lobby to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage at the federal level. But it’s an uphill battle.

“Gender inequalities is still a persistent issue in this country,” said Rachel Clement, a policy advocate at the International Center for Research on Women. “There are gender inequitable norms that really undermine and devalue women and girls. We just don’t value them the way we do with men and boys’ voices, who are often heard and trusted in way women and girls’ aren’t.”

For Moldt and Clement, parents and judges who allow children to get married should be held responsible for their actions. Juridical consent is also criticized to not take a child’s best interest at heart. “With the judicial approval process,” said Moldt, “there’s either no specific criteria that the judge needs to consider when approving these child marriages or  if there are specific criteria, It’s minimal.”

After obtaining a divorce, Aliya juggled between work and being a single parent, in addition to the night classes she already started when she was pregnant. She moved out of her uncle’s basement and now lives with her two teenagers and their dog in Maryland “I chose to be very positive with myself,” said Aliya, now in her 30s. “I never looked at myself as a victim, I always looked at myself as a survivor. I was in a horrible marriage, pregnant, and I chose to look at my possibilities. My priority was my kids.”

But Aliya’s battle is not over. As an activist, she wants to put an end to child marriage, and lobby for the laws that can change that fight for the children who unlike her don’t have the energy, spirit, and strength to fight.

“Many girls don’t have the tools to move forward,” she said. “But why should there be tools in the first place, when we can eliminate child marriage?”


Tamara Saade lived in Beirut, Lebanon, before moving to New York. With a focus on human rights reporting, conflict coverage, and social issues, she will continue reporting on Middle Eastern related topics, to shed light on this area of the world that is often misreported on.

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