A recent op-ed piece in the NY Times last week caught me by surprise. It was called “America’s Child-Marriage Problem.” My response was “What Child Marriage Problem?” I was stunned to learn that thousands of children under the age of 18 have been allowed to legally marry – many times to much older partners. The author of the column, Fraidy Reiss is executive director of an organization called Unchained At Last, a non-profit that helps women and girls leave or avoid forced or arranged marriages.
I normally reserve blog posts on this site about topics that involve lawyering, courtroom drama, or litigation issues of some kind. But the data in this article so stunned me that I thought I have to try to get this information out as much as possible as i suspect most folks had no idea this was happening in the States.
The article reports that most states have laws requiring people to be at least 18 years of age before getting married. But most states also have one or two exceptions. The first is “parental consent” – so as long as parents of the minor consent its okay. Even if the child is openly crying during the ceremony as the article talks about in one particular case. Of course, it begs the question of what constitutes “consent” as opposed to force. Romeo loved Juliet and vice versa so if those two star-crossed lovers wanted to get married it would be one thing. But the laws do not cover the situation where the parent consents but the child does not as most states do not specifically forbid forced marriages.
The second exception is if the marriage is approved by a judge. So I figured this must be a rare -if ever- occurrence. Wrong again. Studies done by Unchained at Last and the Tahirh Justice Center, an NGO that provides services to immigrant women and girls,show that in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012 178 marriages were approved by a judge where one of the participants was between ages 10 and 15! Yes that’s right – 10! In NJ a 10 year old boy was allowed to be legally married to an 18 year old woman. Now due to the age of the participant the record is sealed so we can’t learn more than the ages of the participants. But what judge would ever approve this? I suspect it is a judge that is part of the community or culture that approves such marriages as way to enhance family position or even to gain an economic advantage.The Tahirh survey data hows what you would expect – that most of these marriages are occurring in immigrant or ultra-Orthodox communities, but they also involve their fair share of “ordinary Americans.” The survey reports of many child marriages in all faiths – Muslim, Christina, Jewish, Hindu , =Buddhist and Sikh with large numbers in the Mormon and Orthodox Jewish communities – two cultures that have certainly engrained themselves in American life and which have likely produced judges on the bench in their particular States and communities.
So what about my home state NY? It fared a little better but not much. At least though NY sets a minimum age of 14 for child marriage. A few examples of NY judge-approved marriages include a 14 year old married to a 26 year old; a 15 year old married to a 28 year old; and a 15 year old married to a 35 year old. These pairings also make out a case of statutory rape. Yet they are protected by the marriage contract since it is approved by a judge. It is similar to what happens when a minor signs a recording contract – it has to be brought to court to be approved by judge in order to bind the minor to the deal.
Unchained At Last is calling for a movement to end the legality of child marriages. It is asking for folks to contact their State legislators. I have already done that and I have also signed on to do pro bono work for them to help those in forced marriages use the courts to get out of them. This really has no place in our society. Common sense tells you that a child of 13, 14 or even 15 is not ready to commit to marriage, especially to someone so much older than they are. While I am for an all-out ban on marriage by anyone under the age of 18, perhaps the law can allow someone who is 16 or 17 to marry someone within say two years of their age – a similar gap that is used in statutory rape laws. This at least gives some leeway to the communities that insist this is part of their culture. The problem with that is when it gets approved by a judge, it then becomes part of our culture as well. The law should also require that the parties re-affirm the marriage in court once all participants reach 18.
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