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From Baltimore to Bangladesh, let’s end child marriage

Founder and Executive Director of Unchained at Last, Fraidy Reiss, at a rally to end child marriage in the United States. In May 2017, the Governor of New Jersey vetoed a bill that would have made marriage before 18 illegal without exception. Photo credit: Susan Landmann.

This article originally appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation.

New Jersey was poised to make history last Thursday, barring a veto from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, when it could become the first state in the United States to set the legal age of marriage at 18, without exceptions.

Many U.S. states set marriage age limits at 16 to 18 years old but allow exemptions with parental and/or judicial consent, or because of pregnancy. New Jersey’s bill, known as A3091 and passed by the state legislature in March 2017, does not allow for a pregnancy exception.

If Americans are at all aware of child marriage, they most likely assume that it is a thing of the past or happens only in other countries. But this practice, defined as a marriage that takes place when either of the parties is under 18, is present in communities throughout the US, regardless of religion or race.

Research from Unchained at Last and other organizations estimates that almost 250,000 children, the vast majority of them girls, were married in the United States between 2000 and 2010.

These girls are some of the 15 million married every year around the world, the majority living in poverty in the developing world or forced into marriage during conflict and humanitarian disasters, which increase the practice. These marriages often proceed because laws governing the age of marriage allow exceptions in cases where the girl is pregnant or if parents and judges give their consent.

A quarter of a million is a staggering number for a country as economically advanced and relatively stable as the United States, and begs the question, why do American girls continue to face early and forced marriages? For the answer, we must look outward and to the sad universality of laws and practices that violate the human rights of girls.

In speaking with former child brides, I have listened to stories that are difficult to hear but much harder to live. Women and girls speak of rape, abduction, traumatic pregnancies that were neither planned nor wanted, and feeling like they have lost control over their futures. They cite being pulled out of school as particularly difficult to accept. They have limited financial and social resources to sustain their sexual and reproductive health and are often isolated from their peers.

Each girl’s story is unique, but regardless of geography and circumstance, the root cause of child marriage is a thread that weaves through all of these lives: gender inequality. The belief that girls have less value than boys – that their thoughts, ideas and desires can be disregarded – leads families to devote fewer resources to their education and well-being.

The assumption that girls will be married off and become part of someone else’s family, with their productivity therefore benefiting others, adds to this lack of investment. This limits girls’ prospects and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; girls without education and economic literacy become women who struggle to engage in the formal economy and provide financially for families.

Control of women and girls is universal

Another key aspect of this inequality is the belief that girls’ sexuality and reproduction are not personal matters, but instead a point of public discussion and potential shame for families, and therefore something to be controlled and managed. The control of women and girls, particularly their sexuality and reproduction, is universal, and occurs across religions, security and humanitarian contexts, and socioeconomic spheres.

Child marriage is a direct and lasting impact of this belief. In fact, the thousands of girls married as children in the US, often to much older men or because of unplanned pregnancies, make it abundantly clear that child marriage is not just about poverty or insecurity. It is, at its root, about the fact that too many parents and other decision-makers in girls’ lives do not believe women and girls have the right to make choices as fundamental as who they will marry and if and when they will have children.

Worldwide, advocates and civil society organizations have been working for decades to end child marriage, urging those with power, funding, and expertise to turn their attention to stamping out child marriage wherever it occurs. In the United States, organizations like Tahirih Justice Center and Unchained at Last have fought to change the laws, state-by-state. It is grueling, often unrewarding, work. In Maryland earlier this year, legislators allowed the session to lapse before passing a new law to address the issue.

This was apparently due to the stigma still associated with unwed motherhood. I have heard this same rationale for marrying off girls in other countries. This is why successes, like the pending law in my home state of New Jersey, which does not allow for a pregnancy exception, should be held up as examples for other states to follow and why Governor Christie should sign the bill, as passed by the legislature.

More than a legal problem

While laws are an important piece of ending child marriage, the practice is more than a legal problem and so we must champion a cohesive approach that addresses social and economic factors, in coordination with legal options, to ensure girls are empowered to make safe and healthy transitions to adulthood, free from the constraints and consequences of early and forced marriage.

When legal reforms are undertaken, they must be carefully constructed so that child marriage is not legitimized through exceptions. Around the world, maternity and judicial or parental consent exceptions to age of marriage laws leave children at risk of being forced into marriage through extreme familial or societal pressure, coercion, or force.

Child marriage is a human rights violation that has no place in our world. This is true from Baltimore to Bangladesh. We must use every tool available to end the practice, including laws, diplomatic pressure, and funding proven programs, such as girls’ education. But to make a lasting impact and end child marriage once and for all, we must purposefully tackle the practice at its root and work to achieve gender equality everywhere.