For many Americans, the image of underage marriage is a child bride in an undeveloped country forced into marriage by family and tradition. The truth is closer to home: Only three states, New York, Texas, and Virginia, outlaw marriage for minors under the age of 17.
Where minors marry
In 27 states, there is no true minimum marriage age, and in nine states, the minimum marriage age is below 16, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and girls fleeing violence. In most states, minors can marry provided they have parental permission and the approval of a judge — although they can’t vote, legally drink alcohol, or, in many states, retain a lawyer.
And marry they do. Over the past 15 years, more than 200,000 minors were married in the United States. Two-thirds of those were 17, but children as young as 12 have also married. The vast majority of married minors are girls.
Changing the law isn’t easy
And even though most U.S. laws around minor marriage have roots in the 18th century, attempts to change those laws to reflect modern mores have encountered resistance.
Last spring, for example, a New Jersey law banning marriage under age 18 was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. A similar bill in California was recently amended to allow marriage of minors under increased judicial scrutiny in order for it to pass. And New Hampshire bill that would have prohibited marriage for those under 18 was defeated last year.
Laws allowing minors to wed are still in force largely because parental rights have strong cultural support and legal precedent. In many legal scenarios, parents have great power to decide what is best for their children. And efforts to create stricter child marriage laws are often resisted by religious conservatives who want to encourage marriage for pregnant teens.
Advocates of stronger child marriage laws point to statistics that paint a grim picture of underage marriage. Married minors have a 70 to 80 percent divorce rate, and they are twice as likely to live in poverty and are three times more likely to be abused by their spouse than are married adults. They are also at higher risk for physical and mental health issues.
Fortunately, the movement to ban minor marriage may be gaining momentum. In June, Connecticut enacted a law that prohibits marriage below age 16. Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are also considering measures to prohibit marriage for those under 18.