What’s Going on With Child Marriage in the U.S.?

A few days ago, I was spending some time scrolling through the news on my phone and saw a story that seemed impossible: Pennsylvania had become only the third U.S. state to ban child marriage. “Third?”, I thought. “That can’t be right.” And I fell down the Google rabbit hole. 

As it turns out, it’s true. Only three U.S. states—Delaware, New Jersey, and now Pennsylvania—outlaw marriage for persons below the age of 18.[1] Previously, an individual in Pennsylvania could obtain a marriage license with court approval if under age 16, and with parental consent between the ages of 16 and 18.[2] These exceptions have been used to marry an estimated 2,300 children under age 18 in Pennsylvania since 2014.[3]

But Pennsylvania is not the only state that allowed these loopholes. 47 states currently set 18 as the minimum age for marriage but allow individuals under 18 to get married with certain approvals, like parental consent or judicial approval.[4] Thirteen states don’t have a minimum marriage age at all.[5]

According to Unchained At Last, nearly a quarter of a million children, some as young as 12 years old, were married in the US between 2000 and 2010.[6] Most of them are young girls. In 87% of marriages involving a child, the minor is a girl.[7] In some marriages, the age difference is large enough that if the couple were not married, any sex between them would be considered statutory rape.[8] Even with some checks on underage marriage, in many states little to no effort is made to ensure that the underaged party consents to marry.[9] Pictured below is a protest organized by Unchained, held in 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.[10]

A group of people posing for the camera

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In certain states, underaged marriage becomes particularly problematic because it’s inescapable—in some states, children cannot file for divorce, get legal advice, or seek help at women’s shelters because of issues insuring minors.[11] This means that in some cases, girls are getting married before they are old enough to be able to petition for divorce or safely leave abusive relationships, leaving them trapped. 

These marriages occur for many different reasons, including familial pressure, pregnancy, and sexual assault. In many cases, when a girl under age 18 becomes pregnant by a partner who is a legal adult, others around her convince her that the only way for her partner to avoid charges is to get married. In other cases, victims of sexual assault are coerced into marrying their rapists and assailants.[12]

Girls who marry before age 18 face a variety of negative consequences.[13] Girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are most likely to experience domestic partner violence.[14] They experience extremely high divorce rates, with an estimated 70-80% of marriages in which at least one party was under the age of 18 ending in divorce.[15] They also experience higher dropout rates and are at an increased risk for poverty.[16]

Although policy is haphazard at the state level, the U.S. has made ending child marriage a priority at the foreign policy level. It has committed itself to ending child marriage by 2030 in line with Target 5.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.[17] In March 2016, the Department of State adopted the Global Strategy To Empower Adolescent Girls, which includes specific provisions to end child marriage.[18]

Thinking about the state of child marriage in the United States has caused me to take time and reflect on the ways that our laws may be exploiting girls right here at home. I find it incredibly striking that child marriage still happens in the US, but also that it has become such an invisible problem, leaving our girls to fall through the cracks in our system. Many people are unaware that it still happens, and so little is being done to change it and raising awareness is difficult.  Although I am optimistic that the tide is changing, I am sobered remembering that the US still has a long way to go in eliminating child marriage completely. For example, the US still has not ratified the 1995 Convention on the Rights of the Child or the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which directly addresses child marriage.[19]

For more information on child marriage, both in the United States and worldwide, visit the Girls Not Brides website at girlsnotbrides.org. Girls Not Brides also has links to local community organizations in all fifty states working to end child marriage in the U.S. Information is also available from Unchained, a similar nonprofit, and the Human Rights Watch.

– R.O.


[1] Audrey McNamara, “Pennyslvania Just Became the Third State to Ban Child Marriage,”  (2020), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pennsylvania-child-marriage-ban-third-state/.

[2] Chelsea Simeon, “Pa. Becomes Third State to Ban Child Marriage,”  WKBN (2020), https://www.wkbn.com/news/pennsylvania/pa-becomes-third-state-to-ban-child-marriage/.

[3] McNamara, “Pennyslvania Just Became the Third State to Ban Child Marriage”.

[4] Lisa W. Foderaro, “It’s Legal for 14-Year-Olds to Marry. Should It Be?,”  The New York Times (2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/nyregion/a-push-to-restrict-child-marriages-in-new-york.html.

[5] Jasmine Brown, Gloria Riviera, and Shannon K. Crawford, “Child Brides in the Us Share Stories of Exploitation, Becoming a Wife: ‘I Knew I Was 11. I Knew He Was 20.’,”  ABC News (2019), https://abcnews.go.com/US/child-brides-us-share-stories-exploitation-learning-wife/story?id=64589713.

[6] Fraidy Reiss, “Why Can 12-Year-Olds Still Get Married in the United States?,”  The Washington Post (2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/10/why-does-the-united-states-still-let-12-year-old-girls-get-married/?postshare=701486850216167.

[7] Elaisha Stokes, “Campaign to End Child Marriage in the U.S. Runs into Some Surprising Opposition,”  CBS News (2019), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/child-marriage-in-us-cbsn-originals/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Foderaro, “It’s Legal for 14-Year-Olds to Marry. Should It Be?”.

[10] Daniele Selby, “Child Marriage Is Legal in the Us. How You Can Help End It.,”  https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/child-marriage-in-the-us-what-to-know/.

[11] Lucy Anna Gray, “Lifting the Veil: Why Children Are Still Getting Married in America,”  The Independent (2020), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/child-marriage-us-states-america-minimum-age-bride-girls-a9467121.html.

[12] Brown, Riviera, and Crawford, “Child Brides in the Us Share Stories of Exploitation, Becoming a Wife: ‘I Knew I Was 11. I Knew He Was 20.'”.

[13] Nesha Abiraj, “Break the Chains of Child Marriage,”  Human Rights Watch (2019), https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/02/break-chains-child-marriage.

[14] Rachel L. Schuman, “State Regulations Are Failing Our Children: An Analysis of Child Marriage Laws in the United States,” William and Mary Law Review 60, no. 6 (2019).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Gray, “Lifting the Veil: Why Children Are Still Getting Married in America”.

[17] “United States,” Girls Not Brides, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/united-states/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Camellia Burns, “Why Domestic Institutions Are Failing Child Brides: A Comparative Analysis of India’s and the United States’ Legal Approaches to the Institution of Child Marriage,” Tulane Journal of International & Comparative Law 23, no. 1 (2014).

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