Girls Not Brides
A lot of young, and old, girls dream of their wedding day; of white dresses and long veils, of prince charming waiting at the end of the aisle. For most of us, it is a dream for the distant future. Yet for some it becomes a reality even before they hit adulthood. And while for many people the term ‘child brides’ conjures up images of developing countries, the United States of America is not excluded from this reality.
Worldwide, there are approximately 12 million girls that get married before the age of 18 every year; 12 million girls that are considered child brides. According to Forbes Magazine, 3 in 10 girls in South Asia are married before they legally become an adult. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number is as high as 4 in 10. Statistics like these make it easy to look at child marriages and classify them as a problem ‘over there’. However, the truth reflects that it’s happening everywhere, including in the United States. Based on data collected by the Washington Post, there were nearly 250,000 marriages between the years 2000 and 2010 in the United States in which the girl was younger than 18; most were married to adult men. Internationally, child marriages also involve grooms that are younger than 18. In the western world though the term ‘child marriage’ almost exclusively means that the younger party is a girl.
The US has set it as their target to eliminate child marriages by 2030 as part of their Sustainable Development Goals. Nevertheless, only 2 states - Delaware and New Jersey - legally forbid marriage for anyone under 18 without exception. The rest all have some asterix attached, some list of reasons that could qualify as an exception and make it acceptable for someone younger to be married. Within those exceptions, many states still have an age limit; in some it’s 17, in others as low as 14. However, 14 states still have no age restriction at all. All it takes is a judge or a parent or legal guardian to sign off on it and any child can become a bride.
The main reason as to why someone below legal adulthood may be permitted to marry is because one of the parties is pregnant or because the minor has already given birth. Both cases which, essentially, under the cover of marriage, make statuary rape and the possible consequences of it acceptable. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that stories of girls being raped and then married off to their rapist in order for the family to save face have become increasingly frequent.
If someone has become emancipated, they are, in many of those states, also allowed to marry at a younger age as they are legally considered to be adults. Those cases are also the only ones in which someone below 18 can ask for a divorce. That’s one of the scariest things about child brides: just because they got married, and took on all the responsibilities that come with that, doesn't mean that they are considered an adult any more than before. This includes not being able to file for divorce as that is reserved for people of legal adulthood. Nor are they suddenly granted autonomy over medical decisions; those are still made at the discretion of the parent or legal guardian. This includes decisions about birth control and abortions.
The term ‘child bride’ usually has a negative connotation. It gives the impression of a girl that was forced into marriage against her will, that her wishes were not even taken into account. Whilst that oftentimes may be the case, sometimes she might be the one pushing for the marriage, her groom being this 20 something year old boyfriend and not the creepy middle-aged man we all imagine. Sometimes, child brides are just that little girl with a wedding dream making it come true sooner. However, those cases are the minority and even then, they put the young bride at risk.
Child marriages have many consequences, some more foreseeable than others. For one, they often result in early pregnancy. This leads to teen brides being almost three times as likely to have at least 5 children. Moreover, pregnancy, or even just the pressures and responsibilities of marriage, often end up interrupting their schooling, limiting career opportunities down the line. On a social note, it can lead to isolation as the young newlywed might feel alienated from her peers or simply not have the time to foster teenage friendships. It is hence not surprising that the Washington Post reported that 75% of the unions eventually end in divorce. Tragically, being a child bride also puts young women at a higher risk of abuse. UNICEF estimates that they are 3 times more likely to experience domestic abuse in their marital household. They are also significantly more likely to live life in poverty as a result of the chain reactions set off by the child marriage.
Laws are meant to be there for order as well as for the protection of the country’s citizens. Allowing kids to get married before they are legally allowed to make most other decisions by themselves is irresponsible and, worse than that, harmful to many. It doesn’t matter what the exceptions are meant to account for, or how in love someone might think they are; if the intentions are pure, waiting a few more years won’t change that. Let them dream of being brides someday; don’t force them into it tomorrow.