We would like to imagine that forced, arranged and child marriages are relics of the past that now only cloud the most unprogressive of foreign nations, or those whose laws remain tied to religious institution. But a Tuesday op-ed in The New York Times has suggested otherwise.
The piece focuses on the two possibilities in which children under the age of 18 can be married here in the United States: with “parental consent,” and with “judicial approval.”
The first is what you’d imagine — children aged 16 and 17 sign marriage licenses that their parents have approved. The second allows children in many states in to marry under the age of 16 with the approval of judges. “Judges in those states can allow the marriage even of an elementary school student,” the piece read. These laws also don’t specify any way for judges to investigate the reason for which the child is marrying.
In other words, parents can force their young children into marriage with adults at least 18 years of age under any circumstance, so long as a judge approves the request. “Even in the case of a girl’s sobbing openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage,” author Fraidy Reiss wrote, “the clerk usually has no authority to intervene. In fact, in most states there are no laws that specifically forbid forced marriage.”
Reiss specifically targets a study conducted in New Jersey, where both parental consent and judicial approval allow marriage under the age of 17. According to the op-ed, “3,499 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 178 were between ages 10 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages.”
Even more troubling isn’t the age at which these children were married, but the fact that they were married to adults “with age differences that could have triggered statutory rape charges.”
Many of us are reading these facts, shaking our heads and closing our eyes to make the thoughts disappear. We want to believe these statistics aren’t true. We don’t hear about forced marriages and we don’t see them on the news. How could they be happening right under our noses?
The reason for some of these forced marriages is attributed to the biblically archaic argument that families want to preserve the honor or purity of their children. Comparing these practices to a sort of sex-slavery may seem extreme, but an accusation of such isn’t really that far off the mark, especially when considering statutory rape laws. There is a time in our lives where we are unaware of what consent entails or means, which asserts that, at that age, we aren’t qualified to give it. By circumventing the spirit of these laws with marriage, legally or religiously, we are defeating the entire purpose. Other arguments cite an effort to improve their families’ social and financial statuses. Of course, there is often still a class calculation in marriages, and we maintain consciousness of that, but this is a category all its own.
As always, ignorance is bliss, and our ignorance is not a product of a low-key practice of these laws, but rather the fact that the media doesn’t usually report on issues such as this — and if it does, the issues are in another country across the world, far from the United States and far from our own hometowns. If this happens in another country, we are disgusted and we speak out against it. But it’s happening right here, and most people remain completely unaware. And why wouldn’t we be? It’s just one of those issues that we thought to be closed along with our history books, picking up dust on a shelf somewhere.
We’d like to think that there are so many ways to stop this. The fact that there are no laws that give judges who sign off on these marriages a right to stop them from happening is a crime in itself. Even still, perhaps a judge can’t intervene on a professional level, but morally there has to be more they can do. It seems that even though a judge has a duty to the law, he or she also has a duty to virtue. And virtue says to tell someone that the underage girl is crying, and not to let her go through with a marriage to a man who could be upward of 35-years-old.
In any case, it’s ridiculous to put someone who is clearly not old enough to understand or to realize that what they are being thrown into is against their basic, natural human rights is appalling. Of course religious freedom in this country is valid, but its validity doesn’t trump the rights of these kids who aren’t in any way allowed to express their own rights as individuals.
Take driving a car as a more understated example of this. Most state laws say that a person is not intelligent or developed enough to drive a car until at least the age of 15. No matter how you feel, you aren’t emotionally ready to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. And no matter how ready you feel, or how ready your parents feel, you aren’t emotionally ready to marry until you are a legal adult.
That being said, we live in an environment where people tend to get married in their late-twenties, at the earliest. We of course recognize that in other parts of the U.S. people get married right out of college, or even right out of high school. And of course it is understood that immigrants to the U.S. from other countries operate under different societal norms, and we aren’t aiming to discount those. But we must come to a universal understanding that marrying off our children at age 10 or 12 so that our families gain wealth or that our children remain “pure” in the eyes of God just simply doesn’t make sense in a progressive society such as this.
There is always a chance that these underage marriages will move off the grid if legislation is ever passed against them, as is the case with most things that were once readily available and are now against the law. But realistically, we can’t put decisions that effect children’s adult lives in the hands of parents who have an upper hand and judges who have only seen their faces once. A judicial appeal process shouldn’t even exist. Children under the age of 18 simply should not be married, under any circumstances.