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Interview: the women campaigning to end child marriage in the United States

Photo credit: Unchained at Last | Susan Landmann

Few people associate the United States with child marriage, a practice which affects 15 million girls every year. That is why it may have come as a surprise to many when, last October, the New York Times reported on “America’s child marriage problem” and the legal campaign that Unchained at Last and Tahirih Justice Center are leading to prevent child marriage in the country.

As the campaign gains momentum, we spoke to Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Director of Unchained at Last who herself escaped a forced marriage, and Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at Tahirih Justice Center, about child marriage in the United States and how close we are to ending it.

Fraidy Reiss is up for the prestigious DVF People’s Voice Award! Vote now for Fraidy and Unchained At Last to help win $50k for women fleeing forced marriages.

How big of a problem is child marriage in the U.S.? What do we know about the practice?

We don’t yet know the full extent of America’s child marriage problem, because little attention was paid to it before now. Our New York Times op-ed, and the state legislative campaigns we’ve launched thus far to end child marriage, are finally making this hidden problem visible to the public and to policymakers.

More data on child marriage in the United States here.
 We are now retrieving data from all 50 states to determine the full extent of the problem, but from the information we already have, we know two shocking facts.

1) Child marriage is legal in all 50 U.S. States, and 2) child marriage is happening across the U.S. At least tens of thousands of children, as young as 12, have been married here recently – mostly girls wed to adult men.

Why increase the age of marriage in the U.S.? What difference will it make?

To clarify, we are not advocating simply for an increased marriage age. Most states already set 18 as the marriage age, but all states allow exceptions that permit children younger than 18 to marry – and in some states, with the exceptions, there is no minimum marriage age. We advocate for an end to these dangerous exceptions.

Why? Child marriage undermines girls’ health, education and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence. Further, legal and practical obstacles typically prevent children in the U.S. from accessing the resources they need to protect themselves from being forced into a marriage or to escape from an abusive marriage. These obstacles include barriers to entering a domestic violence shelter, retaining an attorney or filing a divorce, or taking other legal action.

What have been your campaigns’ successes so far? Challenges?

Photo credit: Marlena Hartz | Tahirih Justice Center

Jeanne Smoot at a panel on child marriage in Washington, D.C., US. Photo credit: Marlena Hartz | Tahirih Justice Center

We are pleased that legislation to end child marriage has been introduced in four states – Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia – and in one of those states, Virginia, the legislature has passed the bill and it just awaits the governor’s signature to become law.

However, we still have 46 states to go. And while there is broad agreement that younger teens should not be allowed to wed, we still encounter resistance from people who do not fully grasp the plight of a 17-year-old girl who is forced into an unwanted marriage, or who is trapped in a marriage because she lacks the rights and the access to resources that an adult in her situation would have.

What’s next for the campaign? What else needs to happen domestically to prevent child marriage and support married girls?

We focus on preventing child marriage, since married girls’ needs for support are so acute and their vulnerabilities to harm are so great.

Still, we hope to see additional measures to empower and protect married girls. They need improved access to legal options, like civil protective orders, as well as social service support, like shelters, which are sometimes reserved for adult victims of intimate partner violence.

On top of the campaign, how are Unchained at Last and Tahirih Justice Center working to address child marriage in the U.S.?

Ending child marriage in the U.S. is not possible solely through legislative reform. While we advocate for legislation in every state, we also work hard to raise awareness about this issue and to continue the national conversation about it, among policymakers and the general public. We hope this will help shift cultural attitudes about children’s rights, marriage and the importance of empowering girls to develop to their full potential.

At the same time, we provide crucial, often life-saving direct services to help children in the U.S. who are trying desperately to resist an impending forced marriage or to escape from a forced marriage that already took place. Their courage reminds us of the importance of our advocacy work.

What has been the biggest learning that you’d like to share with Girls Not Brides members pushing for legal change in their countries?

Child marriage and forced marriage are not problems that affect only one community or one country. These are universal girls’ issues. These are global women’s issues. A legal setback in one country affects girls far beyond that country’s borders, and a legal victory in one country benefits women across the globe.

Let’s remember that as we continue fighting the good fight, and let’s do this together. Individually we are strong, but united we are unstoppable.