Worldwide, the typical age of attaining legal adulthood is 18 years old. In the United States, 18-year-olds still have great limitations on what they can do despite being legal adults. American 18-year-olds cannot drink or purchase alcohol legally, they cannot buy cigarettes in 19 states and still aren’t considered to be full-fledged adults due to still being considered children by most. So why are children under the age of 18 able to legally wed?
In a country like the United States, a well-established first-world nation, you would never expect to hear anything like “child marriage” happening, which has dominated the world stage for decades and still does to this day. The thought of child marriage, anyone below the age of eighteen getting married, is usually associated with developing countries. The stereotype being associated with so-called “third world” countries with misogynistic ideals embedded in their culture has been criticized for their harm against young women. However, these underage marriages are very much real and very much still happening in the United States today.
Over 200,000 minors were legally married in the United States between 2000 and 2015 with the vast majority being girls, 87 percent of minors being married were girls and the other 13 percent were boys, most being 16 or 17 when wed (A. Tsui, D. Nolan, C. Amico, Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers). Though most states set their legal age of sexual consent between 16 and 18, there are numerous instances of marriage licenses being given before the child could legally consent to sex. Children as young as 12 were granted marriage licenses in three states, 13-year-olds were allowed to be wed in 14 states, and approximately 4 percent of minors married under 18 were 15 years old (A. Tsui, D. Nolan, C. Amico, Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers). While some minors had married other minors, around 14 percent, a staggering 86 percent of minors had married adults who were 18 to 20 years old. Minors have also been married off to adults in their 40’s and even as old as their 60’s in rare cases. Judges may even approve an underage marriage between a rapist and their statutory victim if the victim is pregnant (A. Tsui, D. Nolan, C. Amico, Child Marriage in America: By the Numbers).
Though minors can consent to marriage by a judge if permitted by their parents, they are not able to leave their marriage if they choose to. 70 to 80 percent of marriages involving a minor end in divorce in the United States; however, this usually only happens when the child reaches adulthood or when the adult decides to divorce them instead. In some states, hiring an attorney and divorcing their spouse is incredibly difficult since minors cannot enter most contracts. It is difficult for minors to legally leave their spouse since they lack many social support services. They are treated as runaways and returned to their families if caught; domestic violence shelters will often not take them due to being under 18, and anyone who may offer a minor a place to stay can be charged with harboring a runaway and even contributing to the delinquency of a minor (equalitynow.org, “5 Things You Should Know About Child Marriage and the Law in the United States”).
This entraps young men and women in marriages where they have to face psychological and even physical abuse. Some of the consequences of child marriage include sexual abuse, decreased education, and early pregnancies. Globally, women who are married before 18 are three times as likely to face domestic abuse. Victims of child marriage are also more likely to develop mental health issues like depression and anxiety, there is also a link between childhood sexual abuse and substance abuse. Women who marry before the age of 18 are also more likely to drop out of high school and are four times less likely to attend college, making them dependent on their spouse due to the lack of job eligibility (unchainedatlast.org).
However, there is progress towards raising the legal age of marriage to 18. Four states, New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, have established laws to prohibit marriage under 18. Though the remaining states do not have any prohibition of child marriage, some have bills that limit it and most have established a legal age to be wed in their state. Unfortunately, there are still 20 states that have no minimum age to be married. So why is it that even when the United States State Department has declared child marriage a type of child sexual abuse and human rights violation while it is still perfectly legal in 46 states? Though efforts have been made towards progress through organizations like “Unchained At Last” and “Equality Now” towards raising the marriageable age to 18, there is still more to do to protect young boys and girls from becoming child brides and grooms. There is no "face" to who marries their sons and daughters off as minors, child marriage is present in every racial group, every socioeconomic group, and everyone you can think of in the country.
If children are not old enough to be able to own property, to vote, or to have the full legal capacity as adults, then they are not old enough to consent to a marriage under the age of 18.