When will redemption come? . . . When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves. (Gates of Prayer, p. 211)
WRJ has a long history of issuing resolutions and statements that address the health, education, and welfare of women and children. Through these resolutions and statements, WRJ has harnessed its members’ collective voice to fight abuse, poverty, lack of healthcare, pornography, and exploitation of women and children. In 2009, WRJ issued a Board Statement on Child Marriage, that urged support of the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2009, which focused on diplomatic and programmatic initiatives to fight child marriage primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The bill received unanimous bi-partisan support in the Senate yet failed to pass in 2009 and failed again after being reintroduced in 2011.
Marriage, whether voluntary or involuntary, involving girls and young women is a problem, both internationally and domestically. Child marriage is defined as marriage or cohabitation before the age of 18.[i] UNICEF states that “Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights.[ii] Human Rights Watch notes that “The emerging consensus of international human rights standards is that the minimum age of marriage should be set at 18”.[iii] A minimum age of 18 provides an “objective rather than a subjective standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready … and will also help ensure that children are able to give their free and full consent to marry.”[iv] Child marriage affects boys and girls but girls are disproportionately affected.[v]
In 2015, the United Nations made ending child marriage one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the period 2015-2030.[vi] Yet, the United States does not have a federal law establishing a minimum age for marriage. State laws also have failed to protect against the dangers of child marriage. Only twenty-three states have established a minimum age for marriage. Even in those states, children may marry at a younger age when there is parental consent or with the approval of a judge[vii]. In the case of child marriages based on parental consent, the child is rarely asked whether they are being pressured into the marriage and “[e]ven when a girl sobs openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk has no authority to intervene.”[viii]
Since 2011, Canada has committed significant resources to ending child marriage and has become a leading advocate for ending global child marriage.[ix] In Canada, the federal minimum legal age for marriage is 16, with no exceptions. Some provinces have raised the age to 18 or 19 allowing for certain exceptions for marriage below that age.[x] The consequences of child marriage are devastating. In the United States, child marriage is associated with increased occurrences of heart disease, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, death related to pregnancy, and mental health disorders.[xi] Women who marry under the age of 19 are fifty percent more likely to drop out of school and subsequently end up in low-paying jobs.[xii] Furthermore, between 70% and 80% of child marriages end in divorce.[xiii]
According to the non-profit Unchained at Last, it is estimated that nearly one-quarter of a million children under the age of 18, some as young as 10 years of age, were married between 2000 and 2010 in the United States.[xiv] This estimate is based on actual data from 38 states, in which 167,000 children were married during the period studied, and on estimates for twelve states and the District of Columbia which could not provide the data. Where the information is known, roughly 85% of the children under 18 years of age married in the United States are young girls. These girls are often married to men who are significantly older and who, if not for the marriage, would be committing statutory rape under the applicable state’s laws. Children forced into marriage often have no legal standing, as minors, to oppose or prevent the marriage.[xv]
According to a July 26, 2017 New York Times article by Fraidy Reiss (“Despite Progress, Child Marriage Is Still Legal in All 50 States”), several states have taken unsuccessful or only partially successful action to prevent child marriage. In March 2017, both houses of the New Jersey legislature passed a bill to end all marriage prior to age 18, but it was vetoed by then Governor Christie. New York passed a bill preventing marriage at age 16 or younger but allowing students age 17 to marry. Texas and Virginia passed bills that end child marriage under age 18, but allows marriage for emancipated minors. Efforts in Maryland, New Hampshire, California, and Connecticut have either failed to pass or fail to protect all children under the age 18. Recently in Florida, a state with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the United States, legislation has been proposed (Senate Bill 140 and House Bill 335) that would make 18 the minimum age of marriage, with no exceptions. Florida law currently prohibits marriage under the age of 18 yet includes exceptions that permit girls to be forced into marriage to men who have raped them.[xvi] In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, beneficial legislation is pending while a few other states are considering legislation.
Current non-legislative efforts to combat child marriage on the international stage seek to address the problem of child marriage, but, without legal reform, true change is still elusive. Girls not Brides is a “global partnership of 800+ civil society organizations committed to ending Child Marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential.”[xvii] Their extensive programmatic approach is applied globally through various aid organizations, especially in areas where this practice is most prevalent. In March 2016, the US State Department, in cooperation with USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corp, and the Peace Corps, developed a “Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls,” which they call a “holistic response to the needs of girls” and aims to meet the requirements of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization of 2013 (VAWA) which made global child marriage a top priority for the United States.[xviii]
Given the devastating impact of child marriage on children around the world and in North America, Women of Reform Judaism calls upon its sisterhoods, women’s groups, and individual members to:
Educate themselves and their members about the impact of child marriage locally, nationally, and globally.
Call on the United States and Canada to establish 18 years of age as the minimum age for marriage, with no exceptions.
Support state and provincial legislation which would make 18 the minimum age of marriage, with no exceptions.
Work with elected officials in states or provinces that permit child marriage to pass legislation to require adequate safeguards to ensure that minors have legal standing and the right to oppose or prevent the marriage.
Support organizations that promote an end to child marriage in the United States, Canada, and globally.
[i] Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse. (Aug, 29, 2016). UNICEF for Every Child.
[ii] Child Marriage is a Violation of Human Rights, But is All Too Common. UNICED for Every Child.
[iii] Q & A: Child Marriage and Violations of Girls' Rights. (June 14, 2013). Human Rights Watch.
[iv] Child Marriage and the Law. Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
[v] Child Marriage – Shocking Statistics. Unchained at Last.
[vi] Zafar, Ommera. (Aug. 4, 2015). Targets on Child Marriage included in Proposed SDGs Framework. Girls Not Brides.
[vii] Beitsch, Rebecca. (May 12, 2017). Child Brides Join Push to Raise Marriage Age. The PEW Charitable Trusts.
[viii] Child Marriage – Legal in Every State. Unchained at Last.
[x] Child Marriage Around the World: Canada. Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
[xi] Reiss, Fraidy. (July 26, 2017). Despite Progress, Child Marriage Is Still Legal in All 50 States. The New York Times.
[xii] Child Marriage – Devastating Consequences. Unchained at Last.
[xiv] Child Marriage – Shocking Statistics. Unchained at Last.
[xv] About Arranged/Forced Marriage. Unchained at Last.
[xvi] End Child Marriage in Florida. Human Rights Watch.
[xvii] Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
[xviii] CARE Applauds Congress for Prioritizing Child Marriage in the Violence Against Women Act. (Mar. 13, 2013). CARE.