Child marriage is still legal in most of the U.S. Here’s why.

At age 14, Genevieve Meyer began spending time with a neighbor to get a break from her hectic home life.

Her relationship with the neighbor, a 42-year-old divorced father of two, soon turned sexual. Meyer’s mother eventually found out, and she called the police.

But she believed that Meyer had “ruined this man’s life” by seducing him, according to Meyer, and the neighbor and Meyer’s mother ultimately decided that he and the teen would get married so that any criminal charges would be dropped.

In return, Meyer’s mother would get a cut from the profits of the neighbor’s tree-trimming business.

Meyer, now 43, was shocked when her mother told her about the deal.

“My immediate response was 14-year-olds don’t get married,” Meyer said. “But I was wrong.”  

Thousands of children and teens are legally wed in the United States each year: almost 300,000 minors got married between 2000 and 2018, according to one 2021 study by Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls get out of forced marriages.

The nonprofit calculated these numbers using marriage certificate data.

Most of those minors were 16 and 17 years old at the time they were wed, but children as young as 10 have been forced into marriage, according to Unchained at Last.

Girls are far more likely than boys to be married before the age of 18. Out of all the minors that married between 2000 and 2018, 86 percent were girls and 14 percent were boys, per the nonprofit. Most of those girls married adult men.

“This is happening every day,” said Fraidy Reiss, found of Unchained at Last. “And some of the reasons are because of these outdated, archaic and dangerous laws that encourage this.” 

Marrying before the age of 18 was legal in all 50 states until 2017. Since then, 10 states have passed legislation banning the practice.

In 2018, Delaware passed legislation raising the minimum age to marry to 18, becoming the first state to ban child marriage. 

It was followed shortly by New Jersey, and since then Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and most recently Michigan have also raised the minimum age to legally wed to 18.   

More than half of U.S. states still allow for 16- and 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent, however, according to Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works to protect women and girls facing gender-based violence.

On top of that, 10 states allow children younger than 16 to get married with judicial approval, according to the center, while four will drop the minimum age for marriage if a girl is pregnant.

And eight states — including California and Washington — have no age floor for marriage, according to the center.

Legal loopholes at the federal level allow for child marriage to continue as well.

For example, there is no minimum age requirement to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé visa, according to the U.S. State Department. 

As a result, Reiss said, many young girls in the United States are used to help older men living abroad to obtain a visa.

And while some states have adopted laws to make it harder for minors to marry, passing those laws can be challenging.

Legislation banning child marriage has struggled in some states due to backlash from both conservative and progressive voices.

Earlier this year, for instance, a bill that would have prohibited minors from getting married in West Virginia was rejected by Republicans in the state Senate. Some opponents of the bill argued that teen marriage was part of West Virginia’s culture.

West Virginia Sen. Mike Stuart (R) was among those who voted against the bill this past spring. He said that his mother was married when she was 16 and “six months later, I came along. I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” according to The Associated Press.

Wyoming Republicans, meanwhile, pushed back against state legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 16 because they said it could limit parental rights and religious freedom.

In 2017, then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) similarly vetoed a bill banning marriage for anyone under 18in the state because “it would conflict with religious customs.”

“There is some perceived threat to religious freedom,” said Ann Warner, interim CEO and president of the International Center for Research on Women, said of efforts to bar minors from legally marrying.

She pushed back against that perception, however. “We are talking about human rights and human rights are not antithetical to religious freedom,” she argued.

In California, in contrast, opposition to setting a minimum age for marriage has come from more progressive groups, including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center.

These groups have contended that imposing an age requirement for marriage could lead to rollbacks of constitutional or reproductive rights.

In 2017, the ACLU wrote in a letter of opposition to a California bill banning child marriage that the legislation “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage with sufficient cause,” according to PBS.

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California Spokesperson Jennifer Wonnacott said in a statement to The Hill that the organization “strongly supports protecting youth from abuse of all kinds and safeguarding their rights.”

“We have supported previous efforts to create safeguards against exploitation while working with authors to ensure those protections do not impede on the reproductive rights of minors and their ability to decide what is best for them, their health, and their lives,” she added.

Warner pushed back against this argument as well, arguing that rather than being an exercise of young people’s rights, marriages involving minors are being used as a guise for abuse and control of children.

Minors need parental consent or judicial permission in order to get married, and many times children’s voices aren’t being heard as they stand before a clerk of the court or county registrar to be wed, she said.

“This is not a youth right that is being exercised enthusiastically by young people,” said Warner. “This is a loophole in the law that is being used to exploit young people under the guise of marriage.”

This was the case for Meyer, who said her mother gave her consent by signing something that “looked like a permission slip” and handing it to her daughter’s soon-to-be husband.

Meyer and her former husband, who ultimately divorced when she was 22, got married in a Jackson, Miss., courthouse when most of the staff were on their lunch break, she said.

She doesn’t remember signing a marriage certificate, but does have a copy of it.

“It does have my little child’s signature on it, so I must have at some point,” she said.

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