Too young to wed?

Thou­sands of Amer­i­can chil­dren face forced mar­riages each year

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Out­[email protected]­

Michelle DeMello walked into the clerk’s of­fice in Colorado think­ing for sure some­one would save her. She was 16 and preg­nant. Her Chris­tian com­mu­nity in Green Moun­tain Falls was pres­sur­ing her fam­ily to marry her off to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn’t think she had the right to say no to the mar­riage af­ter the mess she felt she’d made. “I could be the ex­am­ple of the shin­ing whore in town, or I could be what ev­ery­body wanted me to be at that mo­ment and save my fam­ily a lot of honor,” DeMello said. She as­sumed that the clerk would refuse to ap­prove the mar­riage. The law wouldn’t al­low a mi­nor to marry, right? Wrong, as DeMello, now 42, learned. While most states set 18 as the min­i­mum mar­riage age, ex­cep­tions in ev­ery state al­low chil­dren younger than 18 to marry, typ­i­cally with parental con­sent or ju­di­cial ap­proval. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not spec­ify an age be­low which a child can­not marry.

Un­chained At Last, a non­profit I founded to help women re­sist or es­cape forced mar­riage in the United States, spent the past year col­lect­ing mar­riage li­cense data from 2000 to 2010, the most re­cent year for which most states were able to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion. We learned that in 38 states, more than 167,000 chil­dren — al­most all of them girls, some as young 12 — were mar­ried dur­ing that pe­riod, mostly to men 18 or older. Twelve states and the Dis­trict of Columbia were un­able to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on how many chil­dren had mar­ried there in that decade. Based on the cor­re­la­tion we iden­ti­fied be­tween state pop­u­la­tion and child mar­riage, we es­ti­mated that the to­tal num­ber of chil­dren wed in Amer­ica be­tween 2000 and 2010 was nearly 248,000.

De­spite these alarm­ing numbers, and de­spite the doc­u­mented con­se­quences of early mar­riages, in­clud­ing neg­a­tive ef­fects on health and ed­u­ca­tion and an in­creased like­li­hood of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, some state law­mak­ers have re­sisted pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to end child mar­riage — be­cause they wrongly fear that such mea­sures might un­law­fully sti­fle re­li­gious free­dom or be­cause they cling to the no­tion that mar­riage is the best so­lu­tion for a teen preg­nancy.

In this way, U.S. law­mak­ers are strongly at odds with U.S. for­eign pol­icy. The U.S. Global Strat­egy to Em­power Ado­les­cent Girls, re­leased last year by the State Depart­ment, lists re­duc­ing child, early and

Ac­tivist Fraidy Reiss found that Amer­i­can law does lit­tle to pro­tect kids from adult de­ci­sions

forced mar­riage as a key goal. The strat­egy in­cludes harsh words about mar­riage be­fore 18, declar­ing it a “hu­man rights abuse” that “pro­duces dev­as­tat­ing reper­cus­sions for a girl’s life, ef­fec­tively end­ing her child­hood” by forc­ing her “into adult­hood and moth­er­hood be­fore she is phys­i­cally and men­tally ma­ture.” The State Depart­ment pointed to the de­vel­op­ing world, where 1 in 3 girls is mar­ried by age 18, and 1 in 9 is mar­ried by 15.

While the numbers at home are nowhere near that dire, they are alarm­ing. Many of the chil­dren mar­ried be­tween 2000 and 2010 were wed to adults sig­nif­i­cantly older than they were, the data shows. At least 31 per­cent were mar­ried to a spouse age 21 or older. (The ac­tual num­ber is prob­a­bly higher, as some states did not pro­vide spousal ages.) Some chil­dren were mar­ried at an age, or with a spousal age dif­fer­ence, that con­sti­tutes statu­tory rape un­der their state’s laws. In Idaho, for ex­am­ple, some­one 18 or older who has sex with a child un­der 16 can be charged with a felony and im­pris­oned for up to 25 years. Yet data from Idaho — which had the high­est rate of child mar­riage of the states that pro­vided data — shows that some 55 girls un­der 16 were mar­ried to men 18 or older be­tween 2000 and 2010.

Many of the states that pro­vided data in­cluded cat­e­gories such as “14 and younger,” with­out spec­i­fy­ing ex­actly how much younger some brides and grooms were. Thus, the 12-year-olds we found in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina’s data might not have been the youngest chil­dren wed in Amer­ica be­tween 2000 and 2010. Also, the data we col­lected did not ac­count for chil­dren wed in re­li­gious-only cer­e­monies or taken over­seas to be mar­ried, sit­u­a­tions that we at Un­chained of­ten see.

Most states did not pro­vide iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about the chil­dren, but Un­chained has seen child mar­riage in nearly ev­ery Amer­i­can cul­ture and re­li­gion, in­clud­ing Chris­tian, Jewish, Mus­lim and sec­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties. We have seen it in fam­i­lies who have been in Amer­ica for gen­er­a­tions and im­mi­grant fam­i­lies from all over the world. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, par­ents who marry off their mi­nor chil­dren of­ten are mo­ti­vated by cul­tural or re­li­gious tra­di­tions; a de­sire to con­trol their child’s be­hav­ior or sex­u­al­ity; money (a bride price or dowry); or im­mi­gra­tion-re­lated rea­sons (for in­stance, when a child spon­sors a for­eign spouse). And, of course, many mi­nors marry of their own vo­li­tion — even though in most realms of life, our laws do not al­low chil­dren to make such high-stakes adult de­ci­sions.

Parental con­trol over her sex­u­al­ity was why Sara Sid­diqui, 36, was mar­ried at 15. Her fa­ther dis­cov­ered that she had a boyfriend from a dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­ground and told her she’d be “damned for­ever” if she lost her vir­gin­ity out­side of mar­riage, even though she was still a vir­gin. He ar­ranged her Is­lamic wed­ding to a stranger, 13 years her se­nior, in less than one day; her civil mar­riage in Ne­vada fol­lowed when she was 16 and six months preg­nant. “I couldn’t even drive yet when I was handed over to this man,” said Sid­diqui, who was trapped in her mar­riage for 10 years. “I wasn’t ready to take care of my­self, and I was thrown into tak­ing care of a hus­band and be­ing a mother.”

Mi­nors such as Sid­diqui can eas­ily be forced into mar­riage or forced to stay in a mar­riage. Adults be­ing pres­sured in this way have op­tions, in­clud­ing ac­cess to do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence shelters. But a child who leaves home is con­sid­ered a runaway; the po­lice try to re­turn her to her fam­ily and could even charge our or­ga­ni­za­tion crim­i­nally if we were to get in­volved. Most do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence shelters do not ac­cept mi­nors, and youth shelters typ­i­cally no­tify par­ents that their chil­dren are there. Child-pro­tec­tive ser­vices are usu­ally not a so­lu­tion, ei­ther: Case­work­ers point out that pre­vent­ing le­gal mar­riages is not in their man­date.

Those flee­ing a forced mar­riage of­ten have com­plex le­gal needs, but for chil­dren, ob­tain­ing le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. Even if they can af­ford to pay at­tor­ney’s fees, con­tracts with chil­dren, in­clud­ing re­tainer agree­ments, gen­er­ally can be voided by the child, making them un­de­sir­able clients to lawyers. Fur­ther, chil­dren typ­i­cally are not al­lowed to file le­gal ac­tions in their own names.

Re­gard­less of whether the union was the child’s or the par­ents’ idea, mar­riage be­fore 18 has cat­a­strophic, life­long ef­fects on a girl, un­der­min­ing her health, ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties while in­creas­ing her risk of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vi­o­lence.

Women who marry at 18 or younger face a 23 per­cent higher risk of heart at­tack, di­a­betes, can­cer and stroke than do women who marry be­tween ages 19 and 25, partly be­cause early mar­riage can lead to added stress and for­feited ed­u­ca­tion. Women who wed be­fore 18 also are at in­creased risk of de­vel­op­ing var­i­ous psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders, even when con­trol­ling for so­cio-de­mo­graphic fac­tors.

Amer­i­can girls who marry be­fore 19 are 50 per­cent more likely than their un­mar­ried peers to drop out of high school and four times less likely to grad­u­ate from col­lege. A girl who mar­ries young is 31 per­cent­age points more likely to live in poverty when she is older, a strik­ing fig­ure that ap­pears to be un­re­lated to pre­ex­ist­ing dif­fer­ences in such girls. And, ac­cord­ing to a global study, women who marry be­fore 18 are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouses than women who wed at 21 or older.

End­ing child mar­riage should be sim­ple. Ev­ery state can pass the leg­is­la­tion I’ve helped write to elim­i­nate ex­cep­tions that al­low mar­riage be­fore age 18 — or set the mar­riage age higher than 18, in states where the age of ma­jor­ity is higher. New Jersey is the clos­est state to do­ing this, with a bill ad­vanc­ing in the leg­is­la­ture that would end all mar­riage be­fore 18. Mas­sachusetts re­cently in­tro­duced a sim­i­lar bill.

But when Vir­ginia passed a bill last year to end child mar­riage, leg­is­la­tors added an ex­cep­tion for eman­ci­pated mi­nors as young as 16, even though the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of mar­riage be­fore 18 do not dis­ap­pear when a girl is eman­ci­pated. Bills in­tro­duced last year in New York and Mary­land lan­guished and even­tu­ally died, though Mary­land’s was just rein­tro­duced. Other states have not acted at all. “Some of my col­leagues were stuck in an old-school way of think­ing: A girl gets preg­nant, she needs to get mar­ried,” said Mary­land Del. Vanessa At­ter­beary, who in­tro­duced the bill to end child mar­riage in her state.

Only nine states still al­low preg­nancy ex­cep­tions to the mar­riage age, as such ex­cep­tions have been used to cover up rape and to force girls to marry their rapists. Con­sider Sherry John­son of Florida, who said she was raped re­peat­edly as a child and was preg­nant by 11, at which time her mother forced her to marry her 20-year-old rapist un­der Florida’s preg­nancy ex­cep­tion in the 1970s.

Ad­di­tion­ally, teenage moth­ers who marry and di­vorce are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence eco­nomic de­pri­va­tion and in­sta­bil­ity than those who do not. If the fa­ther wants to co-par­ent, he can es­tab­lish pa­ter­nity and pro­vide in­sur­ance and other ben­e­fits to the baby with­out get­ting mar­ried.

Leg­is­la­tors should re­mem­ber that preg­nant teenage girls are at in­creased risk of forced mar­riage. They need more pro­tec­tion, not less.

Nor does end­ing child mar­riage il­le­gally in­fringe on re­li­gious rights. The Supreme Court has up­held laws that in­ci­den­tally for­bid an act re­quired by re­li­gion, if the laws do not specif­i­cally tar­get re­li­gious prac­tice. Be­sides, most re­li­gions tend to de­scribe mar­riage as an im­por­tant union be­tween two will­ing part­ners. That sounds noth­ing like child mar­riage, which is of­ten forced and which has close to a 70 per­cent chance of end­ing in di­vorce. “There was a con­cern that we would be of­fend­ing cer­tain cul­tures within our so­ci­ety,” said New York As­sem­bly­woman Amy Paulin, who in­tro­duced an un­suc­cess­ful bill last year to end child mar­riage in her state. “So in­stead of see­ing this as an abuse of young women, [some leg­is­la­tors] were see­ing this as some­thing we needed to pro­tect for cer­tain cul­tures.”

Betsy Lay­man, 37, shares Paulin’s goal. Lay­man was 27 when she es­caped the mar­riage that had been ar­ranged for her in her Ortho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity in New York when she was 17, to a man she had known for 45 min­utes. Even af­ter she fled with her three chil­dren, the reper­cus­sions of her mar­riage con­tin­ued to plague her. She was a sin­gle mother with a high school equiv­a­lency cer­tifi­cate, no work ex­pe­ri­ence and no money for child care. The tem­po­rary and part-time jobs she man­aged to get couldn’t cover the bills.

“I was on Sec­tion 8, Med­i­caid and food stamps,” Lay­man said. “There were times there just was not enough food for din­ner.” When the elec­tric com­pany shut off her power for non­pay­ment, she would light can­dles around the house and tell her chil­dren there was a black­out. Only when her youngest child reached school age was she able to find full-time em­ploy­ment and gain some sta­bil­ity.

“Leg­is­la­tors have the power to pre­vent what hap­pened to me from hap­pen­ing to an­other 17-year-old girl,” Lay­man said. “I beg you to end child mar­riage.” Fraidy Reiss is founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Un­chained At Last, a non­profit that helps women and girls es­cape ar­ranged and forced mar­riages and works to end child mar­riage in the United States.


Be­low and left: Sara Sid­diqui’s fa­ther ar­ranged a mar­riage for her at age 15 to an older stranger. By 16, she was preg­nant. She was trapped in the union for 10 years.

Above and right: Michelle DeMello was 16 and preg­nant when she was pres­sured into mar­ry­ing her 19year-old boyfriend.


LEFT: Michelle DeMello on her wed­ding day. She was 16 and preg­nant. “I could be the ex­am­ple of the shin­ing whore in town, or I could be what ev­ery­body wanted me to be at that mo­ment and save my fam­ily a lot of honor,” she said.


BE­LOW: Sara Sid­diqui at age 15, when her fa­ther dis­cov­ered that she had a boyfriend and told her that she would be “damned for­ever” if she lost her vir­gin­ity out­side of mar­riage.

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