Child marriage traps girls in an inescapable legal hell. But it is still legal in 46 US states.

child marriage protest Boston
Demonstrators, including the author of this piece, wearing bridal gowns and veils protest at the Massachusetts State House to urge legislators to end Massachusetts child marriage on March 27, 2019.

  • Nearly 300,000 children were married in the US between 2000 and 2018, a new study found.
  • Child marriage often legalizes what would otherwise be considered rape.
  • Minors typically are not allowed to file for divorce or enter a domestic violence shelter, but child marriage is legal in 46 US states.
  • Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor and the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that combats forced and child marriage.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Great news for child rapists: You don’t need to be a congressman or beloved film director to get away with your crimes. You just need a marriage license – and that is not too difficult to obtain.

Nearly 300,000 children, defined as under 18 years of age, were legally married in the United States between 2000 and 2018, according to a new study by Unchained At Last – the nonprofit I founded to end forced and child marriage in the US – and McGill University. A few of the children were as young as 10. Most were girls wed to adult men, typically before the girls were old enough to legally file for divorce.

Some 60,000 marriages since 2000 occurred at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that should have constituted a sex crime under the relevant state’s laws. In about 12% of those cases, the marriage was legal under state law, but sex within the marriage was still a crime. With each of those marriage licenses, the state sent a child home to be raped.

In the other 88% of those cases, state law specifically granted a marriage exception for what would otherwise have been considered statutory rape. In essence, each of those marriage licenses became a “get out of jail free” card for a would-be rapist.

“Why is it legal to rape a 16-year-old if you’re married?” asked Chloe Rockwell, 21.

Rockwell was 16 when the 22-year-old man she had met online convinced her to marry him so he would not be prosecuted as her pregnant belly became obvious. In Idaho, where they lived, sex with a 16-year-old is punishable by up to life in prison if the perpetrator is three or more years older than the minor – unless they are married to each other.

“He literally googled how to get away with statutory rape, and it said you can’t be charged if the underage girl is your wife,” Rockwell said.

The federal criminal code, too, prohibits sex with a child age 12 to 15, but specifically exempts those who first marry the child.

The marriage loophole

Since child marriage remains legal in 46 US states, with some states setting no minimum age for marriage, the legal code essentially creates an open invitation to predators. The four US states that have ended marriage before age 18 – Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota – did so only in the last three years. Bills to end child marriage are pending in another 12 states, but some have stalled.

While most states set 18 as the marriage age, legal loopholes in 46 states still allow minors to marry, typically with nothing more than a parent’s signature on a form (parental “consent” that, in Unchained’s experience, is often actually parental “coercion”) and/or a judge’s rubber stamp. Five states’ laws still include an archaic pregnancy loophole, which seems designed to cover up rape and force girls to marry their rapist.

“This didn’t happen to me in a far-off country,” said Patricia Abatemarco, 55, who was 14 and pregnant when her parents married her off to the 28-year-old Bible study counselor who had been raping her for two years. “I was raised in an upper-middle-class, suburban home in Minnesota.”

Federal law also does not specify a minimum age to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé, or to be the beneficiary of a spousal or fiancé visa. A kindergartener must wait until she is 21 to petition for her parents to come to the US, but she can legally petition, during naptime, for her 80-year-old husband to get a visa and, in most states, permission to rape her without fear of prosecution.

This is essentially an invitation to traffic girls under the guise of marriage. The US approved 8,868 spousal or fiancé visas involving a minor between 2007 and 2017, according to the US Senate Homeland Security Committee. The younger party was a girl in 95% of the cases.

No legal way out

Most of the children who married recently in the US were girls married to adult men an average of four years older, and sometimes much older, Unchained’s new study found. Nearly all the minors were age 16 or 17, the ages at which they are least likely to get sympathy from legislators, even though their limited legal rights create a nightmarish legal trap and a serious power imbalance between the minor and their adult spouse.

Even “mature” 16- or 17-year-olds are still not legal adults, and therefore can easily be forced to marry or to stay in an unwanted marriage. They can be forced into a marriage with little or no input from them, typically by a parent or a judge, before they are legally allowed to leave home. Those who do try to leave, to escape an impending forced marriage or abusive spouse, often have nowhere to go, since Unchained has found that most domestic violence shelters turn away unaccompanied minors.

Minors typically are not even allowed to file for divorce on their own, since they cannot independently bring a legal action. And Unchained has found that divorce attorneys often are reluctant to take them on as clients, since contracts with minors, including retainer agreements, usually are voidable.

When teens reach out to Unchained to beg for help escaping a forced marriage and learn of their limited options, many end up attempting suicide. Death seems like the only way out for them.

Child marriage is a human rights abuse

Marriage before age 18, including at ages 16 or 17, is a “human rights abuse” according to the US State Department. It devastates American girls’ education, economic opportunities, and health. It puts women at significantly increased risk of experiencing domestic violence. And child marriage almost always ends in divorce.

Both Abatemarco and Rockwell suffered abuse during their marriage, and both are now divorced. Both women saw their education interrupted. Rockwell was thrust into poverty; Abatemarco struggled with alcoholism and still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ending child marriage requires simple, commonsense legislation that Unchained and its allies have been advocating since 2015 that harms no one – except child rapists – and costs nothing. We need to demand that lawmakers in 46 states and at the federal level pass legislation to ban child marriage now.

“I’m relatively intact, but the scars will always be there,” Abatemarco said. “If we can make that not happen for a girl, then let’s do that.”

Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor and the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that combats forced and child marriage in the US through direct services and advocacy.

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