After watching the Surviving R Kelly docuseries on Lifetime, I have many questions. If you haven’t heard about the series, it’s about a successful R&B singer, R. Kelly, and multiple sexual relationships with underage girls. He even married a teenager (she was 15, he was 27). How is that legal? It turns out the papers were forged, specifically lying about the teenage girl’s age, but I digress… So even though that marriage was a sham, underage marriage is not new to the music industry (Jerry Lewis married his 13 year old third cousin in 1958) or to Hollywood (remember the heebie-jeebies you felt when you read that 51 year old actor married 16 year old female?). This caused me to actually look up the marriage laws in the United States and see how common this is. I was shocked.
Internationally, child marriage is common. The vast majority of underage marriages are teenage females married to adult men. According to Girls Not Brides, a nonprofit organization that studies underage marriage and advocates for safety, each year 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 years (23 girls every minute). While countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi and El Salvador have recently banned child marriage, it remains legal in the US. An estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 (twelve years old?!?!?!) were married here between 2000 and 2010. More than one-third of states have no set minimum age below which you cannot get married. In September of 2018, governor of American Samoa, Lolo Moliga, signed into law a bill changing the marriage age for girls from 14 to 18 (with some exceptions). Thank goodness that law changed. Only two states, Delaware and New Jersey, set minimum age of marriage at 18 years of age with no exceptions. (In case you’re curious, Wisconsin allows you to get married as young as 16 years, with permission of parent/guardian). Some state marriage laws appear to be a way for people to escape statutory rape charges; for example, you can get married under 18 without parent/guardian consent if you are pregnant in some states. I can easily imagine a scenario where an adult man coerces a pregnant minor to marry him to prevent him from being charged with a felony.
Teenage marriage has been romanticized in films and novels (A Walk to Remember comes to mind). However, underage marriage is not all romance. Research shows that children who marry have more mental health issues, are much more likely to live in poverty (and not graduate high school), and that teen girls in particular are extremely vulnerable to physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. In fact, underage brides are 3x more likely to be beaten – and remember, many domestic violence shelters do not accept minors. Youth shelters may warn the parent who married you off. Women who marry under the age of 18 years also have higher rates of medical problems, including heart attacks, diabetes, and stroke, than women who marry between ages of 19 and 25 years. 70% of marriages where one spouse is a minor end up in divorce.
There are some organizations that are working to change the state of child marriage in the United States. For more information, check out Unchained at Last, Girls Not Brides, and the Tahirih Justice Center.