‘End this abuse’: campaigner spreads message about child marriage in the USA

Child Marriage Us 2
Activists say the practice of underage marriage is rampant in the United States (Unchained At Last)

Child marriage, Girls' education

Marriage under the age of 18 is still legal to some extent in all 50 American states - but Fraidy Reiss and her organisation are trying to change that.

After being married off at the age of 19 to an abusive husband by her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in New York City, Fraidy Reiss vowed to make a difference – and stop child marriage in the United States.

For while campaigners globally are trying to stop child marriage in such places as Africa and Asia, few people realise that child marriage is legal in every one of the 50 US states.

Between 2000 and 2010, about 170,000 children aged under 18 were wed in 38 states where data was available, according to Unchained at Last, a non-profit group set up by Reiss in 2011 to fight child marriage in the US.

“People like to believe we are better than other countries and problems like violence against women and child marriage and forced marriage and pay inequity and all kinds of problems that happen in developing countries don’t happen here,” she said.

“Unfortunately that’s just not the case,” said Reiss who brings her campaign to London this week, where she will speak at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference on women’s empowerment and human trafficking and slavery.

For although age 18 is typically the minimum for marriage, every US state has legal loopholes or exceptions allowing children to wed at a younger age.

Florida vs Afghanistan

Afghanistan has tougher laws against child marriage than Florida. In Afghanistan girls can marry at 16 or at 15 with permission from their father or a judge. In Florida, a pregnant girl can marry at any age, with the approval of a judge.

Between 2011 and 2015 more than 16,000 children under 18 were married in Florida. A bill to end child marriage is going through the state legislature.

Source: Human Rights Watch

These vary from permission from a judge, parental consent, or a so-called emancipated minor legally freed from parental oversight.

Some states have a military service exception – allowing soldiers being deployed to marry – and other states have a pregnancy exception, some with no minimum age.

“If a girl gets pregnant before the age of consent that means she was raped,” said Reiss, who defied ostracism from her family to divorce her husband, go to college and get a job.

Child Marriage Us 2

Under a previous, nearly 80-year-old state law, children as young as 14 were allowed to marry (Andrew Itaga )

“Yet judges are handing them marriage licences instead of a prison sentence.”

Globally about 15 million girls are married off as children every year, according to the World Bank and Save the Children, exposing them to greater risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.

Nearly 100 million girls live in countries that do not have laws protecting them from being married as children but world leaders have pledged to stamp out child marriage by 2030 under the United Nation’s latest set of global goals.

Reiss said a few US states recently changed their laws – such as Virginia, Texas, New York and Connecticut – but they still have exceptions to an all-out ban.

If I talked about boys being pulled out of high school and their health undermined and their education destroyed, it would be a very, very different situation. Fraidy Reiss, Unchained At Last

The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, recently refused to sign a pioneering bill that would have prohibited any child marriage, saying the law should make an exception for judges to approve marriages for 16 and 17-year-olds.

Reiss said the resistance she faces to a child marriage ban is “anti-female”, noting most child marriages are girls marrying adult men with studies showing about 87% of US child marriages involved underage girls and 13% boys.

“If I talked about boys being pulled out of high school and their health undermined and their education destroyed and their economic opportunities just gone, it would be a very, very different situation,” she said.

“It’s misogyny and sexism, patriarchy … and ignorance. The way to end child marriage is to eliminate all loopholes, all exceptions. End this human rights abuse for once and for all.”

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