Sherry Johnson was forced to marry her rapist at the age of only 11 in 1971, and in six years she had five more children with him before they finally divorced. When I first heard about this case, I just could not believe it. I knew child marriages existed, but only thought in developing countries like India or Pakistan, but not in America. However, the child marriage case of Sherry Johnson is just one of thousands in America.
In 2017, research done by Unchained at Last showed that 248,000 children were married underage in America between 2000 and 2010. Of these, more than 1,000 children were under the age of 14. In some cases, girls as young as 14 (in Alabama) and 17 (in Idaho) were married to men as old as 74 and 65, respectively. Most of these states hold the age of sexual consent at 16 or 18, yet people younger than that are still allowed to marry. In legal terms, this would be considered statutory rape.
Currently, minors that are under the age of sexual consent are able to marry in 25 states as long as they meet their state’s exceptions. These exceptions are parental consent or a judge’s approval in the case of pregnancy. This exception has led to the marriage of children as young as 10 years old, as the minimum age limit is not set. However, the need for parental consent and a judge’s approval does not always protect the child, because the judge’s approval may solely be based on the fact that the parents have given their consent. Also, the child does not need to have an appointed counsel in most states. The minor can be easily forced or coerced into a marriage by their parents, and no investigation will be done to see if the minor was willingly getting married.
Getting married at a young age can have lifelong consequences for the minor. It can affect their health, economic opportunities, education and have an increased chance of being in violent relationships. Women who get married before they turn 18 have a 23 percent higher risk of diabetes, cancer, stroke or heart attacks than women who marry later as marriage increases their stress levels. They also have a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
According to The Washington Post, they are also 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate college. They have a 31 percent higher chance of living in poverty later in life, and they are three times more likely to be in a physically abusive relationship. The ones that do manage to get divorced are likely to face economic hardships.
Considering all of the negative effects early marriage has on an individual, it is surprising that child marriage is still legal in the U.S. Some lawmakers do not want to stop it because they believe it is against religious freedom, and marriage is the best solution for teen pregnancy. The problem with this reasoning, according to The Washington Post, is that pregnant teenagers are at an even higher risk of being forced into early marriage. Even if religions allow, it is not an obligatory practice and religion should not be a reason for not banning child marriages.
Another problem with child marriage is that they are stuck in the marriage for a while. It is not an option for them to get divorced since they cannot file legal action in their own name, and very few attorneys are willing to represent them. They also cannot seek help from organizations as they are considered to be runaways and the organization could face charges.
Some states are moving in the right direction and trying to amend this problem. There are currently pending bills in Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York for ending or limiting child marriage. Florida has just introduced a bill limiting child marriage because of the advocacy of Sherry Johnson. There are organizations like the Reiss nonprofit organization that provides these girls with legal support and helps them rebuild their lives.
Florida representative George Moraitis voted against a bill that would ban child marriages with the exception of some 16 and 17-year-olds when a pregnancy is involved. He cited a legislative staff analysis that said between 2012 and 2016 only one 13-year-old was allowed to marry. He said he encourages pregnant “women” to get married.
However, the best solution to this problem would be to eliminate all exceptions of marriages to children under 18 years old. In the case of pregnancy, the father can still provide support for the child without marriage, and they can get married in a few years. This way it would prevent forced minor marriages in America.
For a country that is working towards ending child marriages in other countries as a human rights violation and has pro-active organizations such as U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent girls, there is no reasoning for this practice to be legal within it’s own borders.