SMITH: End child marriage

The toxic and outdated practice of child marriage should be outlawed nationwide

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Roughly 57,800 minors from the ages of 15 to 17 were married in the United States according to the Pew Research Center.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Feminist dystopias reign in the cultural zeitgeist. Audiences feverishly consume episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” chilled by the way the show resonates with current reality. Unfortunately, the show feels less fiction and more fact as time progresses. In a world post-Access Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey scandals, the threshold for outrage seems to have no bounds. And as tiring as it is to continue to fight for justice and equality for women in both their public and private lives, whistleblowing is still necessary. Namely, we need to raise awareness about child marriage in the United States and eliminate support for it.

Roughly 57,800 minors from the ages of 15 to 17 were married in the United States according to the Pew Research Center. Out of these marriages, divorce rate hovers around 70 percent. Looking at Virginia from 2004-2013, 2,500 children were married. Out of those 2,500, over 200 children were married at 15 or younger. However, while this issue affects both young girls and boys, women are disproportionately exploited. According to Virginia marriage statistics, 90 percent of child spouses are girls. 

Why do these marriages even occur? For such an outdated concept, this is a fair question. As the statistics suggest above, the reasons for initiating such a marriage are insidious. The majority of these marriages happen as a result of teenage pregnancy. The conditions under which a child is conceived vary. In most of these pregnancies, the father is of age, or significantly older. The age difference can be large — according to the Tahirih Justice Center, 47 of the 16-year-olds married off in Virginia married men at least 14 years older than themselves. In many cases, families push their daughters to marry these men at ludicrously young ages, producing the marriage statistics reflected above. However, the coercive tactics by both family members and the potential fiancées eliminate the agency of these women. For some, this means marrying their rapist, using a loophole in old legislations. 

In many states, a child can marry as young as 13 with parental and judicial consent if pregnant. This actually happened in Virginia with a pregnant 13-year-old. Because of this child marriage, her rapist escaped any charges of statutory rape and she never received a Social Services inquiry. Her husband benefitted entirely from her entrapment. In other cases, young women face different pressures from home to marry. Fatima H faced threats from her immediate family to marry her first cousin to ease his access to a green card. She initially refused, but broke under her family’s punishment of house arrest. She describes her experience in court with horrifying details — “I was sweating and nervous,” she recalled. “My mother was hitting me on my knee.” If she had said no, she said, her father would have beat her. “They would have kept me locked up in the house forever.” 

We can pass legislation to protect young women. Last year, Virginia passed a law safeguarding children, making it the first state to place restrictions on child marriage, barring minors from marrying with the exception of emancipated minors. New York followed in Virginia’s footsteps, when Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) signed into law another protective measure against child marriage. However, many of the remaining states in the union have the same legal loopholes that New York or Virginia just outlawed, or worse yet, have none of the qualifications needed for child marriage. Awareness about this issue throughout the United States is crucial to advance broad reform, because it is a state issue. Moreover, as Virginians, we can identify who does not support protections for child marriage within our home state. For example, State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Peterson (D-Fairfax) is on the record stating, “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if someone gets pregnant and they want to be married when the child is born, not being able to do that of their own volition without going to court, I thought that would be a little bit overly aggressive.” In addition, Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun) opposed restrictions on child marriage because he believed that “pregnant teens could be more likely to have abortions if they must have court permission to marry.” Neither lawmakers’ claims are legitimate defenses of removing safeguards — yet both were re-elected in this past November’s election cycle. 

Child marriage is legal and relatively prevalent in most parts of the country. It’s time that we take a firm stance and reject this archaic aspect of patriarchy that strips young women of their agency. And as for those lawmakers who protect abusers — we’ll see them next election.

Katherine Smith is an Opinion columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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