Marriage of Minors: Efforts to End Child Marriage

Child, early and forced marriage, or child marriage, is a pernicious threat to adolescent girls that perpetuates poverty, prevents formal education, creates health ramifications and can contribute to violence. Child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) is defined by the U.S. Department of State as a formal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are under the age of eighteen.[1] While statistical figures may never show the full extent of CEFM, a study by Unchained At Last, an organization advocating for outlawing CEFM, found that an estimated 207,459 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2015.[2] Despite legislative efforts, child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) remains a real and significant problem in the United States.

Families marry minor girls for several reasons, including social beliefs about the appropriate age of marriage for girls; fears that older girls will not find spouses; poor quality of schooling; the socioeconomic needs of a girl’s household; concerns about premarital pregnancy outside of marriage, sexually transmitted diseases, and perceived dishonor to the family.[3]

Policymakers in Congress have sought to eradicate CEFM. Congressman Bobby Rush introduced the Child Marriage Prevention Act in 2018 and Senator Marco Rubio presided over a full committee hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to discuss global efforts to end CEFM.  Despite Congressional interest, CEFM must be addressed by state governments who have more power to regulate marriage.[4] Lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation to eradicate CEFM by raising the minimum marriage age to eighteen. In 2018, Florida lawmakers succeeded in passing a strict new law against CEFM.

Florida has the second highest number of child marriages of any state in the United States. From 2000 to 2015, more than 16,000 minors were married in Florida.[5] Until 2018, Florida did not have a minimum marriage age and allowed marriage licenses to be issued to minors. Prior to 2018, Florida allowed minors to obtain a marriage license if the minors had parental consent, if both parties swore under oath that they were the parents of a child, or if the minor was verifiably pregnant.[6]

Florida State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto and State Representative Jeanette Nunez sought to change the state’s law. These lawmakers were inspired by the story of Sherry Johnson. Sherry, a CEFM victim and a Florida resident, was raped at the age of eight, became pregnant at the age of nine, and was forced to marry her rapist at the age of eleven because her family feared the possibility of a criminal case and perceived dishonor to the family.[7]  The state legislature overwhelmingly passed the Benacquisto-Nunez bipartisan legislation to prohibit the issuance of a marriage license to any person under the age of eighteen. The new law allows a narrow exception for a person who is at least seventeen years old and provides parental consent to marry a partner who is not more than two years older than the younger party.[8]

Florida’s commitment to address CEFM mirrors similar efforts across the country. Lawmakers in Alaska, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont have also introduced legislation to raise the minimum age for marriage.[9] While this is not the only solution to CEFM, the United States continues to find ways to curb this issue.

[1] U.S. Dep’t of State, U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (2016).

[2]Anijali Tsui et al., Child Marriage In America, PBS, July 6, 2017, http://apps.frontline.org/child-marriage-by-the-numbers/.

[3]U.S. Dep’t of State, U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (2016).

[4]Id.

[5]Press Release, Tahirih Justice Center, New Report Examines Alarming Laws That Allow Child Marriage in the U.S., (Aug. 30, 2017) https://www.tahirih.org/news/new-report-examines-alarming-laws-that-allow-child-marriage-in-the-u-s/; Anjali Tsui, Florida Moves to Ban Marriage Before the Age of 17, PBS, Mar. 9, 2018, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/florida-moves-to-ban-marriage-before-the-age-of-17.

[6]S. 140, 2018 Leg., 1st Sess., (Fla. 2018).

[7]Elizabeth Koh, Raped at 8 and forced to wed at 11, this woman tries to end child marriage, Miami Herald, Feb. 2, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article197899194.html.

[8]FLA. STAT. § 741.04 (2018).

[9]Tsui, supra note 5.

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