Although census data shows child marriages in the United States are rare, a report by the Tahirih Justice Center shows varying state laws directly contribute to minors getting legally married.
The report discusses North Carolina laws regarding child marriage — such as the fact that a pregnancy lowers the age floor for legal marriage to 14 years old in the state.
Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center and author of the report, said she assumed child marriages were a rare occurrence and a thing of past generations. She was shocked at what the report found.
“Our jaws dropped and our stomachs clenched to see how many minors were getting married, how young some of them were and what some of the age differences were between the parties,” she said.
The Pew Research Center also released a study that said the national average for 15 to 17-year-olds married is 4.6 per 1,000 people in this age group. The rate of child marriage in North Carolina is slightly higher— at 5.4 per 1,000. West Virginia is the highest with 7.1 per 1,000. The national average for 18 to 19-year-olds getting married is much higher, at about 18 per 1,000.
Smoot said using census data, as Pew did, can misrepresent the actual number of married minors, since the census asks the respondent if they are married without asking for any documented proof. She said young people could report they are married religiously or culturally but may not have gone through the civil procedure of obtaining a marriage license.
“It may be over-inclusive of people that didn’t get married under the civil laws of North Carolina,” she said. “But it’s also under-inclusive in that it’s only gauging how many 15 to 17-year-olds they estimate were married and not how many people were already married in that age range—or younger— and were divorced by the time of the survey, or people who are 18 to 19 now, but married initially at those younger ages.”
In Smoot's study, data was gathered from 38 states that held records of marriage licenses, but Smoot said North Carolina hadn't maintained statewide data on issued marriage licenses.
"So it wasn’t like there was any cache of this information sitting in already coded databases," she said.
Smoot said the state hadn’t had funding to maintain data on marriage licenses for many years and was behind on other kinds of mandated data collection.
John Miskey, a family lawyer in Chapel Hill, said he has never heard of a case of child marriage being negotiated in court in his 10 years of practicing law in North Carolina, and was surprised by the statistics in the Pew Research Center study.
“I know of it being more of a problem in other countries, where kids are just sold off into marriage,” he said. “But I was surprised by the statistics, because though only 5 out of 1000 people is not a huge number, it’s still fairly significant.”
Miskey said this could be because North Carolina law allows minors aged 16 to 18 to obtain a marriage license with only parental consent and does not require judicial consent unless a child aged 14 or 15 is pregnant and wishes to get married.
The Tahirih Justice Center’s report also references this specific North Carolina law, arguing the state’s protections for 14 and 15-year-old children are not enough because it leaves 16 and 17-year-olds without protection, though they are still minors and still susceptible to the legal pitfalls of not being a legal adult.
Smoot found, through her research, that people from many different demographics can be forced into marriage.
She said both immigrants and women whose families have lived in the United States for generations have come to the center seeking help to escape a forced or child marriage.
“There are many different ways that parents or abusive partners or even predators can force a marriage that’s unwanted on a woman or girl,” she said. “These include threats, psychological abuse, forms of coercion like ‘you’ll be dead to us if you don’t go through with this,’ threats to be kicked out of the home, the family, the community."
Smoot said minors face particular legal and practical obstacles to escaping a marriage they don't want to be in. She said in North Carolina, it is a misdemeanor to aid in the delinquency of a minor, which would include harboring a runaway. This makes it difficult for minors to escape a marriage, to leave their households and find somewhere else to stay.
Miskey said people legally can't do a lot of things until they're 18 — but in North Carolina, they could be legally married four years earlier.
“I’d like to think that as a society we could do more to protect these children who, at age 16, you know, you can’t enter a legal contract and you can barely be able to drive a car,” he said. “There’s that maturity level that people haven’t quite hit yet.”
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