Laws to End Child Marriage


Unchained started and now leads the growing national movement to end child marriage in the US.

Child marriage, or marriage before 18, is legal in every US state. And child marriage is happening in the US at an alarming rate: Unchained's groundbreaking research revealed that nearly a quarter-million children as young as 12 were married in the US between 2000 and 2010 - mostly girls wed to adult men.

Are you part of the movement to end child marriage in America?
The minimum marriage age in in most US states is 18, but exceptions in every state allow those younger than 18 to marry. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not set a minimum age below which a child cannot marry.

In most states, children age 16 or 17 can marry if their parents sign the marriage license application. Obviously, one child's parental consent is another child's parental coercion, but state laws do not call for anyone to ask the children whether they are being pressured into marriage. Even when a girl sobs openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk has no authority to intervene.

In many states, judicial approval lowers the marriage age below 16, and many states do not specify a minimum age below which a judge may not approve a child marriage. Typically, states allow judges to approve marriages for couples whose ages or age differences should trigger a statutory-rape charge, not a marriage license.

For details about state-by-state laws and exceptions, see the Tahirih Justice Center report.

Across the world, like in the US, child marriage and forced marriage disproportionately affect girls and women. Globally, 88 percent of countries set 18 as the minimum marriage age, but 52 percent of countries allow girl children to marry with parental consent. As a result, more than 700 million women alive today around the world - and more than one in four young women - were married as children, including some 250 million who wed before 15. Most live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

But too many live right here in the US.

Learn more about child marriage in America and globally from Human Rights Watch.
Unchained spent nearly a year retrieving and analyzing marriage-license data from across the US. The groundbreaking research project revealed that child marriage is a significant problem in America.

The United States Department of State was not exaggerating when it declared in March 2016 that child marriage, or marriage in which one or both parties is under age 18, is a "human rights abuse" that "produces devastating repercussions for a girl's life, effectively ending her childhood."

The impacts of child marriage, or marriage before age 18, are devastating - particularly for girls, who are much more likely to be married as children:

Before they reach the age of majority (usually 18), children cannot easily access the legal and other resources they need to protect themselves from being forced into marriage or to escape from an abusive marriage. Often they cannot easily access domestic violence shelters, retain an attorney (because contracts with children typically are voidable) or file a legal action such as a divorce. Right now, in some states, children can get married but cannot file for divorce.

Remember that most children who marry in the US are minor girls wed to adult men. Think of the outrageous imbalance of power the current marriage-age laws create: The girls must grapple with all these legal and practical handicaps if they try to avoid or leave a marriage, their adult husbands face no such barriers.

Women who married at 18 or younger have a 23 percent greater risk of disease onset, including heart attack, diabetes, cancer and stroke.

Child marriage is associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and early pregnancies, because child brides are often unable to negotiate access to safe sex and medical care.

Child marriage is associated with higher rates of death resulting from childbirth, unwanted pregnancies, pregnancy termination and malnutrition in the offspring.

Child marriage increases the risk of psychiatric disorders. A 2011 study showed child marriage in the US was significantly associated with all mental disorders except pathological gambling and histrionic and dependent personality disorders. Women who married as children have nearly three times as high a risk of developing antisocial personality disorder than women who married as adults; other prevalent disorders among women who married as children include major depressive disorder, nicotine dependence and specific phobias.

Women who marry before 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than are their unmarried counterparts, and four times less likely to complete college.

Young women who married in their teens are often unable to access education and work opportunities, in part because they tend to have more children, earlier and more closely spaced.

Women who marry early are more likely to earn low wages and significantly more likely to live in poverty.

For teenage mothers, marriage is particularly dangerous. Teenage mothers who marry before childbirth are less likely to return to school than teenage mothers who do not marry; overall, teenage mothers who marry and then divorce are more likely to end up living in poverty, while teenage mothers who stay single have better long-term financial outcomes.

Women who married before 18 are three times more likely to have been beaten by their spouses than women who married at 21 or older.

Age at marriage has long been the single most accurate predictor of marital failure. Those who marry before 18 have a stunning 70 to 80% chance of getting divorced.

Divorce can be difficult for an adult, but the challenges a child faces when trying to divorce are often insurmountable.
As described in the op-ed article by Fraidy Reiss published in the Washington Post on February 10, 2017

Michelle DeMello walked into the clerk's office in Colorado thinking for sure someone would save her.

She was 16 and pregnant. Her Christian community in Green Mountain Falls was pressuring her family to marry her off to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn't think she had the right to say no to the marriage after the mess she felt she'd made. "I could be the example of the shining whore in town, or I could be what everybody wanted me to be at that moment and save my family a lot of honor," DeMello said. She assumed that the clerk would refuse to approve the marriage. The law wouldn't allow a minor to marry, right?

Wrong, as DeMello, now 42, learned.


Parental control over her sexuality was why Sara Siddiqui, 36, was married at 15. Her father discovered that she had a boyfriend from a different cultural background and told her she'd be "damned forever" if she lost her virginity outside of marriage, even though she was still a virgin. He arranged her Islamic wedding to a stranger, 13 years her senior, in less than one day; her civil marriage in Nevada followed when she was 16 and six months pregnant.

"I couldn't even drive yet when I was handed over to this man," said Siddiqui, who was trapped in her marriage for 10 years. "I wasn't ready to take care of myself, and I was thrown into taking care of a husband and being a mother."


Betsy Layman, 37, was 27 when she escaped the marriage that had been arranged for her in her Orthodox Jewish community in New York when she was 17, to a man she had known for 45 minutes. Even after she fled with her three children, the repercussions of her marriage continued to plague her. She was a single mother with a high school equivalency certificate, no work experience and no money for child care. The temporary and part-time jobs she managed to get couldn't cover the bills.

"I was on Section 8, Medicaid and food stamps," Layman said. "There were times there just was not enough food for dinner." When the electric company shut off her power for nonpayment, she would light candles around the house and tell her children there was a blackout. Only when her youngest child reached school age was she able to find full-time employment and gain some stability.

"Legislators have the power to prevent what happened to me from happening to another 17-year-old girl," Layman said. "I beg you to end child marriage."
The solution is simple. Unchained is working to pass legislation in every state to eliminate the exceptions that allow children to marry. You can help!

Email your legislators to demand an end to child marriage.

Join an upcoming Chain-In to protest child and forced marriage.

Contact Unchained about getting a bill introduced in your state to end child marriage.

Donate to make sure Unchained can continue its important work.

• Are you a child-marriage survivor, or do you know someone who is? Please contact Unchained.
(Unchained will not share any aspect of your story without your express permission.)

• Do you represent an organization or agency that supports legislation to end child marriage? Please sign on to the memos of support, currently available in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts
With your help, the movement to end child marriage in America, state by state, is gaining momentum. Has your state taken steps to end child marriage?

Unchained started the national movement to end child marriage, with an op-ed article published in the New York Times in October 2015. Since then, Unchained has continued to keep a spotlight on the issue, with regular news media stories, Chain-Ins (political protests), email campaigns and presentations at conferences and other venues. Unchained also has worked with allies in several states to introduce bills to end child marriage. Thanks to these efforts, Unchained and its growing group of allies have seen progress in the push to end child marriage in America, as shown on this map.

Click here for a timeline.
Unchained's work to end child marriage is made possible by the generosity of several supporters, including:
NoVo Foundation
New York Community Trust
Sidney Stern Memorial Trust
Jewish Women's Foundation of Greater Palm Beaches