Yesterday, a group of prominent world leaders launched a worldwide campaign to end child marriage in one generation. The focus of the initiative, Girls Not Brides, is to help activists in the developing world who are already working toward that goal through education and support.
Child marriage is huge worldwide. Some 10 million girls under 18 are married each year, often to much older men. A recent “National Geographic” piece featured Yemeni girls, some of whom were turned over by their families for marriage when they were only 6. A particularly powerful picture was of a 14-year-old mother washing her newborn, as the girl’s 2-year-old played in the background.
The Yemeni girl was married off by her parents when she was 12. What I think is interesting is that in some states in the U.S., parents could try to marry off their 12-year-old as well. Legally.
Katherine Gustafson writes for Slate’s Double X blog about the consequence of marriage for child brides and their communities. The initiative appears to define a child bride as any girl under 18 years of age. There’s no doubt that the Girls Not Brides’ goal is huge, important and an act of humanity. But I think its influence should be aimed right here in the U.S., where in most every state it is legal for girls under 18 to get married — a fact that I find utterly surprising every time I am reminded of it.
To be sure, in most states a person must be 18 years old to legally get married. Though, Nebraska sets the marriageable age at 19. However, Mississippi lets a guy get married at 17-years-old and a girl at 15-years-old.
Here’s the bigger problem: all states have another minimum age, usually 16-years-old, when they can get married with parental consent. In Nebraska, Oregon, Washington and Indiana, the parental consent age is 17. But in Massachusetts, boys can get married as young as 14 with parental and judicial consent; girls can get married in that state, again with consent of parents and the court, as young as 12.
Other states also let the age drop even further as long as a judge approves it. I have no idea how often 12-year-old girls are getting married in Massachusetts, but I’m sure it’s rare and if we’re really talking about protecting girls, should probably be never.
I can imagine scenarios where child marriage would be the one way for a girl to be rescued from a dire familial situation, but one has to ask: how does that situation differ from a Yemeni girl’s, whose family no longer wants to feed or educate her? It’s not that different.
Some U.S. states have marriageable age exceptions for pregnant girls, but that, again, is hardly a solution for that girl. If she marries, she’ll have health insurance? Well then that’s a problem with how we deliver health care in the U.S. She’s have stability? She’s 12, how will a child husband bring her stability? His family? Why must a young girl go through the motions of playing house in order to receive support from the adults in her life?
I think efforts like Girls Not Brides are great and necessary, but I’m also wary of double standards. Granted, it’s a global initiative, not one being pushed by the U.S. administration, but it’s hard not to get behind when you see the damage giving birth in adolescence can have on a girl, not to mention the educational (and, therefore, economic) battle starting a family so young can be. But if we can see the injustice parents who think they know best pushing their girl to marry in Yemen or Ethiopia or Saudi Arabia, can’t we see the injustice of the same thing happening in our own back yard? Should that be OK? U.S. girls should not be brides, either.