Fighting child marriage in the US

3 min read

An estimated nearly 250,000 children, some as young as ten, were married in the United States between 2000 and 2010. Most of these were girls, and most were married to adult men. These shocking figures were compiled by Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization focused on eradicating child marriage in the US and active in supporting the victims of what the United States Department of State calls "a human rights abuse."

We originally took on a review of one state's applicable legislation, considering the problems and repercussions of child marriage and the vulnerabilities a child faces when trying to escape a forced marriage. With every state allowing exceptions below the 18-year age limit on marriage, and 25 states with no lower limit, our lawyers quickly volunteered to take on the research required to assess all 50 US states. So far, 37 lawyers and legal staff in six offices have worked on the project, supervised by Tokyo partner Alexander Woody.

This is the first state-by-state, in-depth review of the laws that impact and enable child marriage in the US, and initial work includes a quick reference summary of relevant data points in each state. In addition, our lawyers compared child marriage minimum ages with the minimum statutory age of other activities such as buying cigarettes and alcohol, getting a tattoo or using a tanning salon. Our work highlighted the absurdity of allowing children to marry—a lifetime legal contract—while protecting them from other activities that are deemed age-inappropriate.

Research for 15 of the 50 states is now complete, and Unchained At Last is using the information in detailed conversations with legislators, educating them and pointing out loopholes and inconsistencies in the law. For example, a law that is supposed to protect children by limiting their ability to enter into contracts has the ironic effect of making it very difficult for them to exit forced marriages. Our research also found that in many states children can marry but cannot file for divorce because they cannot bring a legal action in their own name.

Unchained At Last is working with legislators across the United States to make changes that will protect children from forced marriages, and some positive impact is already being seen. In New Jersey, there was overwhelming bipartisan support for a bill to end child marriage. Unfortunately, in that case the bill was conditionally vetoed by the governor.

In New York, a bill that Unchained At Last helped to write and promote has been passed in modified form, and bills in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida are pending or being filed. In each case, our memo on the issues is included as part of the testimony. According to Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Executive Director of Unchained At Last, bringing White & Case's resources and credibility to the issues being debated has been an important driver of their achievements so far.

The problem is real and, without legislative change, is unlikely to go away. Fraidy explains the need to protect these children: "Child marriage is a human rights abuse that devastates girls’ lives, destroying their health, education and economic opportunities and making them much more likely to experience domestic violence."