What’s the legal marriage age in the United States? 16? 18? Should a child even be allowed to get married before the age of 18? Child marriage is often perceived as a distant problem that happens abroad. However, it is still an issue that exists in this country, and American citizens rarely talk about it.
Globally, when parental consent exceptions are considered, girls can be married before age 18 in 52% of countries. The laws often differ for girls and boys, leaving young women with less protection. In the United States, children as young as 12 can even be married. This can happen in states where the age difference between the two parties would constitute as statutory rape.
The Washington Post reports, “While most states set 18 as the minimum marriage age, exceptions in every state allow children younger than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry.”
These loopholes leave children open to harmful marriage practices with almost no options for autonomy or protection. Many children, mostly young girls, are forced into this by their parents or communities for religious reasons.
The negative repercussions of child marriage are statistically proven to be damaging to the wellbeing of the child in question. Girls married before eighteen are much less likely to graduate high school or college, and are more likely to be impoverished, victims of domestic violence, and suffer from psychological illnesses.
However, one organization is fighting to change these horrific practices by giving girls the power to say “no” and their right to freedom from child marriage. Unchained At Last is the only nonprofit in the United States dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged marriages. They offer free legal support for young girls looking for an escape, regardless of citizenship or income status.
Unchained also provides career counseling, mentoring, and psychotherapy for these children who are often forced into domestic slavery by abusive husbands. Their other mission is fighting tirelessly to create social, political, and legal change to end forced and child marriages forever.
Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained has a personal connection to the cause. Her family forced her into an arranged marriage with a violent man at the age of 19.
She remained trapped in this relationship for years until finally becoming the first person in her family to go to college, and breaking out of her religious community that did not grant women the right to divorce. While earning her degree at Rutgers University, she gained custody of her two daughters, a divorce from and restraining order against her ex-husband, and became valedictorian at age 32.
Now she works with Unchained at Last to help other children facing the same obstacles as she did that may have even fewer options. Her hope is that all girls will have the legal power to be married to whomever they choose as adults, and the right to a divorce when forced into marriages as children.
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