Over 200,000 American children were married between 2000 and 2015

Here in Missouri, 7,341 minors were married from 2000 to 2014. In fact, just before Aug. 28 of this year, a 15-year-old could get married with only one parent consenting at 15 or at any age with judicial consent in the State of Missouri. In fact, our loose marriage laws made Missouri a safe haven for child marriage. People used to come here from out of state to get married underage. What happens here in Missouri is endemic of a much larger problem that poisons our whole country and its people―child marriage.

Sometimes it seems innocent enough. Some people say, ¨So what if teenagers want to marry?¨ The problem is that usually, it’s minors marrying adults. With little legal protection, children as young as 12 can be and have been married off.

A very standard way an American child marriage happens is due to, on suspicion or anticipation of, sexual relations between a teenaged girl and a man. Sometimes that means there was a pregnancy and the girl’s parents don’t want their daughter to be a single mom. Sometimes that means that the adult man is trying to get out of criminal charges for whatever he did to the girl and the parents allow him. Very often, the girl has very little choice in that situation and is being coerced or forced by her parents or the older sexual predator. Of course, these are just examples and many cases don’t fit this model very well.

After entering a marriage, the conditions are usually not that great. Children in child marriages are more likely to have suffered mental and physical health. 50% drop out of school to make time for their new life as a married person and possibly a parent. Most of these marriages eventually end in divorce.

Now, I realize the concept of child marriage sounds like something that makes everyone´s skin crawl, but there are some beliefs in place that are preventing girls from being protected from bad marriages. Laws follow culture, and culture isn’t perfect.

Many people think it’s okay if it’s a mature 17-year-old, but I disagree because of the lack of legal agency a minor has means that they can very often be forced or coerced into the marriage. It is also difficult to get a divorce as a minor and that can trap girls in marriages they are not safe in.

There is also another reason that child marriage is wrong. It enables predators. Think about the legal age of consent concerning sex in most states. About 16 to 18, right? But child marriage laws are much looser. So very often what you have is a child in a marriage who is too young to legally consent to what´s going on there, but the adult predator will get off scot-free. 

People also sometimes support child marriage because they believe that having teen moms married instead of single will reduce the number of single moms on welfare. This makes no sense because those girls usually try to get a divorce when they become adults, and it is sometimes very hard for them afterward, as 50% drop out of school. This can mean they will very well may end up on welfare anyway.

Also, some opposition to ending child marriage comes from a place of wanting to protect freedom of religion and the freedom to marry. I think that both freedom of religion and the freedom to marry are important threads in the fabric of any government aiming to give its citizens liberty. However, the freedom to not partake in religious activities is intrinsically part of religious freedom, just as the freedom not to marry is intrinsically part of the freedom not to marry. And many of the girls being coerced or forced into marriages with men do not have that freedom, making legal child marriage not a protection of religious freedom or the freedom to marry in the slightest.  

There are some other reasons child marriage is legal, but just plain old fashioned ignorance is also a huge part. Many lawmakers do not see child marriage as a problem in the United States, so they do not take action when at least 207,459 American children were married between 2000 and 2015. And that´s just from the places where data could be pulled from. The real scale of this problem even bigger.

There are many controversial issues in the United States that we just can´t seem to find the solution on abortion, the death sentence, gun laws (etc), but child marriage is not one of them. It is not a mystery that marrying children to child predators and putting them in marriages without their consent is wrong, so it´s time for a change. The safety of American children can be protected by a federal law preventing any or all marriage between a child and an adult with no exceptions.