Ending Violence Against Women: Child Marriage

In the US, Child Marriage is Used to Avoid Statutory Rape Charges

When we think of child marriage, we may not think it occurs often in the United States, and certainly not recently. However, between the years of 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S. In 87% of child marriages, the minor is a girl, and 86% of the time she is marrying a legal adult.

Genevieve Meyer, who is now 39, has spoken out about her experience being married at the age of 15. After her family moved to California, she met John Malloy, a twice-divorced father of two in his 40s — the man she would be forced to marry. The first time he put his hand on her thigh, she knew it was wrong. But he was persistent, and eventually, the behavior became even more inappropriate. 

Meyer’s mother took notice. She called the cops and the police arrested him. But he managed to make bail. That’s when her mother, who Meyer said suffered from mental illness, had a sudden change of heart. Her mother was convinced that Meyer had seduced their neighbor and that unless they got married, he could lose his job and his children, and go to jail. Within a month, she wed her neighbor, and the charges against him were dropped.

Child Marriage Laws in the United States

In the United States, marriage laws are regulated at the state level. Forty-eight states still have legal loopholes that allow youth under the age of 18 to marry. These loopholes include legally emancipated minors, parental consent, and judicial approval. In many instances these loopholes are used for the older partner to avoid statutory rape charges. In fact, advocates argue that the vast majority of marriages with minors would otherwise constitute statutory rape.

Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, an advocacy group dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States, argues that sexual predators have an incentive to marry their victims in order to avoid prosecution and possible jail time. 

“In 38 states, what would otherwise be considered felony rape becomes completely legal once a marriage license is handed out,” she says.

Therefore, advocates argue that the only way to prevent this from occurring is to make child marriage illegal with no exceptions in all 50 states.

Ending Child Marriage Loopholes

Progress has been made in the fight to outlaw child marriage. Last year Delaware became the first state to completely ban marriage under the age of 18, without exception. New Jersey then followed suit. In total, eight states have raised the age of marriage to legal adulthood, either requiring couples to be at least 18 at the time of the wedding or to be emancipated minors.

However, work still needs to be done. Today, Meyer lives in Indiana, where she is advocating to change the laws in the state. Currently, Indiana allows minors as young as 15 to get married, provided they have parental approval and judicial consent. Meyer wants to see this end.

“Most parents make good decisions when they come to their kids. They nurture them, they provide them with what they need, they enrich their lives, they want the best for them. But that’s not the case for all parents, so we need to have laws in place to protect children when their parents don’t — not loopholes for them to be exploited.” she says.

Ending these loopholes in every state is incredibly important – not only because it will prevent child marriage, which is harmful regardless of the circumstances, but also because it will help ensure that sexual predators who use child marriage as a way to escape consequences are held legally accountable.

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Grace Malloy is a 28-year-old living in the Greater Boston area, with interests in writing, public service, and women’s rights. While working as a software support specialist, she received her Masters Degree in Public Administration – a challenging yet fulfilling experience. She aspires to use her strengths and passions to make a positive impact on her community.

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