(Picture: Tahirih Justice Center)
The first time Jesse Topper heard about child marriage was only a few months ago. “I will be honest with you, I was very ignorant,” said the Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. “I didn’t think it was an issue in America, and certainly not in Pennsylvania,” said the 37-year-old father of two young boys.
In this state, the law allows men and women as young as 16 to get married with parental consent. Unchained at Last was the first organization, followed then by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, to teach Topper about this big issue. Over the past few years, some national advocacy groups have been trying to revise the laws in every state.
Child marriage is legal across the country because almost every state has legal exceptions to the typical minimum age of 18, such as pregnancy, parental consent or judicial approval. The Pew Research Center revealed that in 2014 about 57,800 minors in the U.S. ages 15 to 17 were married. They represent less than five percent of their age category. This is still too much for former victims and advocacy groups.
The issue often leads to abuse because minors are vulnerable and they mostly wed older men. “Some pregnant girls are even forced to marry their rapist,” said Tina McBride, executive director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center in Idaho. The mother of four is also a victim who finally divorced her abusive husband. She is now helping victims of sexual abuse.
The young wed are immigrants from every religious community but also girls born and raised here. There are also those minors who wed for love. “But some of them are being under control of their families,” said Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy of the Tahirih Justice Center, located in five different states. This non-governmental organization aims to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence and persecution. “When they are American citizens, they can’t escape and ask for asylum,” said Smoot. “And even if marriage is declining in the US, as well as child marriage, the danger remains for minors already married because they can and they will be more difficult to find,” she said.
A 2012 study from William & Mary Law School also reports that girls who marry before 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school compared to their unmarried counterparts. They also have up to eighty percent chance of getting divorced. Another study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revealed in 2011 that child marriage is associated with higher rates of psychiatric disorders.
National advocacy groups played a big role in launching a fight to end child marriage. It took three years for Fraidy Reiss to win that battle in New Jersey. The 43-year-old founder of Unchained at Last is a determined forced-marriage survivor. She was 19 when her Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn arranged for her to marry a man who turned out to be violent. But with no education or job, in an insular religious community where only men have the right to grant a divorce, the native New Yorker felt trapped.
In 2011, after her divorce, Reiss founded Unchained at Last, a nonprofit based in New Jersey that has helped hundreds of girls and women escape from arranged relationships. Last June, her home state finally voted to pass a law banning all marriage under the age of 18 without exceptions. “It shouldn’t have been this difficult to end such an obvious rights abuse,” said Reiss, who pushed legislators and attracted the media’s attention. “But it’s historic because it will never happen again in New Jersey.”
New Jersey was actually the second state to change its law. One month earlier, in May 2018, Delaware was the first state to set the minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions. Since then, other states including Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, New York, and Florida have decided to limit marriage to legal adults and emancipated minors. In each instance, advocacy groups and former victims pushed the legislators, such as Sherry Johnson in Florida.
“I am very happy even if the minimum age is finally 17 because now there are requirements,” said Sherry Johnson, the former child bride who was raped, pregnant and forced to wed at 11. She helped promote the measure by telling her story all over the country. The 58-year-old mother of six children has since become so famous that she now asks money for any video request because she wants to finance her foundation, which is dedicated to fighting sex abuse. “My work isn’t over,” said Johnson, during an unexpected, and so free, phone interview. “It’s not just Florida. It’s for the children everywhere.”
In Pennsylvania, the process has just started. Rep. Topper has quickly introduced legislation in the state House to change the law so no one under 18 can marry. He is waiting for the next legislature to begin in order to ban child marriage he hopes by June 2019. “I believe we have many age requirements in the state without exceptions for a reason,” said Rep. Topper referring to voting or alcohol. “It should be the same thing for marriage.” He also thinks that child marriage creates a public policy problem. “These are minors we are talking about. They don’t have the same right as adults so we have to protect them.”