Not all marriage is consensual.
64 million girls around the world are forced into marriage.
For child brides, marriage is when they lose their freedom and become property. Child brides are forced into sexual activity, child bearing, cleaning, and servitude, all at too young of an age.
Child brides are especially susceptible to HIV as common victims of sexual abuse and a lack of education.
39,000 girls become child brides every day.
1 in 9 girls is married before they are 15.
Who does child marriage affect?
Child marriage affects both boys and girls, however it disproportionately affects girls and young women. 1 out of every 4 girls marries before the age of 18, and of those who do, it is most often to a spouse older than they are.
A study conducted in 2010 found that girls in the U.S. who married before the age of 19 were 50% more likely to drop out of high school than unmarried girls of the same age, and were only 25% as likely to get a college degree. Additionally, the study found that girls who marry before the age of 16 are 31% more likely to fall under the poverty level later in life.
There is also a wide body of evidence that finds strong associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders, as well as a correlation between child marriage and domestic violence.
How is child marriage addressed in current U.S. law?
In the United States, the minimum age for marriage is 18, however, every state allows exceptions under which children can wed. Between 2001 and 2010, 3,850 children were married in New York. In June 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill addressing this problem, reducing the circumstances under which children are allowed to marry.
In New Jersey, as another example, 3,481 children were married between 1995 and 2012, the majority of whom were 16 or 17. These children were allowed to marry with parental consent. 163 of these children were between the ages of 13 and 15, which meant that they received parental consent and a judge approved their marriages. In 27 states, no laws exist which limit how young a child can marry with the authorization of a judge. What is especially troubling is that state laws generally do not mandate that an investigation into whether a child is marrying willingly is carried out.
Also troubling is the fact that most states have not passed legislation that specifically prohibits forced marriage. States that have passed such legislation include California, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Why are child brides more susceptible to HIV?
Child brides are at higher risk of contracting HIV for many reasons which include consent, power imbalances, domestic violence, isolation, and a lack of knowledge.
First, child brides are often forced to practice unsafe sex, and have very little say in how sexual relations within the relationship are conducted. Again, the vast majority of child brides are married to men much older than them, creating an imbalance of power, and putting girls and young women in positions where they are unable to practice safe sex or refuse sex.
Second, child brides are more vulnerable to domestic violence, a factor which has been shown to increase the risk of contracting HIV.
Third, child brides are often isolated in both geographic and social terms, leaving them unable to access HIV and related information and programs. In addition, girls are frequently taken out of school once they are married, leaving them without crucial knowledge related to sexual health.
What can be done about this issue?
One possible solution to this problem would be quite simple in the United States. State legislators should eliminate any exceptions that allow children to wed, reserving marriage for adults. Those who believe that parental consent should be sufficient for child marriage ignore the fact that in many cases parental consent can easily be parental coercion.
All graphics by Jaclyn Saik