Forced and Child Marriage In the United States: Why it matters to anti-trafficking advocates

Reflect back on your life as an adolescent. Perhaps memories flood your mind-the good, the bad, and everywhere in between. These memories for you may include trips to the park, exploring the nearest mall, family arguments during Thanksgiving, or caring for a beloved pet.

Stop there. Now imagine that at some point before your 18th birthday, you entered a marriage. Perhaps your spouse is someone you met only a few times or is three times your age. As a minor, you cannot legally divorce. How might your life be different?

To start, let’s consider: What is a forced marriage? The International Labour Organization (ILO) includes “forced marriage” as a subset of modern slavery. The ILO estimates that in 2016, 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage to which they had not consented.1 Generally, child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, as at least one person was not able to provide full consent. Age of consent in NV, as in the rest of the US, is 16 in most cases. However, it is not strictly the same for marriage.

How does forced marriage intersect with human trafficking? Forced marriages are coordinated using tactics common to sex and labor trafficking, such as force, fraud, and coercion. As in sex and labor trafficking, forced marriage often involves an exchange of funds (commonly “dowries”) or something of value.

Take for instance the experience of a former LifeWay resident we’ll call Sheena. Sheena thought she was entering a marriage with a partner, but, in reality, the husband and his family secured this marriage deceptively for the purposes of securing documents for himself. When Sheena and her husband arrived in the US, he subjected her to work in the commercial sex industry. Once his intentions became clear, she was living in a new country with someone who was now legally her husband. She didn’t know what to do.

Child and forced marriages are not just a global concern, but a domestic one as well. According to research from Unchained at Last, an estimated 297,033 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018.2 There are only four states that completely ban child marriages, these include Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. In other states the reality for children is different. For instance, in North Carolina minors as young as 14 can marry with judicial consent.3

What are the concerns? According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights.4 There are a number of concerns associated with child marriage, such as health implications, violence, restricted education, and financial risks. UNICEF captures the magnitude of risks well:

“Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school; they have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services. Child brides often become pregnant during adolescence, when the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth increases – for themselves and their infants.”-UNICEF5

It is worth noting that not all child marriages are coordinated with malicious intent, but are rooted in cultural tradition. However, the experiences and consequences of child marriages show that those under the age of 18 years have limited ability to say no to a marriage they are not interested in. Without full consent of all parties involved, marriage should be delayed until the age of 18 without exception. Laws that protect consent are not “culturally insensitive.”

LifeWay is proud to be part of The National Coalition to End Child Marriage, a large coalition convened by Unchained at Last and Equality Now. LifeWay assists women survivors of human trafficking, some of whom have experienced forced marriage. Supporting the recovery of the women in the safe house, we recognize the long-term trauma that persists into adulthood. We stand with these other organizations and urge them to pass A3891/S3086 in NY, which increases the age of consent for purposes of marriage to the age of eighteen. We believe in a world where every survivor is connected, free, and strong.

Join us in taking action.

1) Urge your representative to pass A3891/S3086:

2) Read Unchained at Last’s Latest Research: United States’ Marriage Problem

1Global Estimates of Modern Slavery

2United States’ Marriage Problem

3State-by-State Marriage “Age of Consent” Laws:

4Child, early and forced marriage, including in humanitarian settings

5UNICEF, Child Marriage

Post by Tori Curbelo and Sharon Lanser