Child marriage isn’t a ‘developing world issue,’ it’s an American one, too

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

Here comes the bride, all dressed in white. Walking down the aisle, striding toward her husband-to-be. Her family sits on either side, excited for their daughter to begin a new chapter of her life. It’s a fairy-tale wedding. Except, the bride is 14 years old.

Around the world, about 12 million girls younger than 18 get married every year. Child marriage has always been a dilemma Americans claim no part in; disregarding it and associating it with developing nations. Well, what if I told you that right here in the United States, child marriage is still very much an issue. 

According to the New York Times, 200,000 minors in the United States were married between 2000 and 2015. That’s right. Child marriage isn’t a “world away” issue, it’s happening in our very own backyard.

Recently, the spotlight has been on the state of Idaho. Early this year, a bill was brought in front of the state’s House of Representatives. The bill was meant to eliminate child marriage in the state by implementing a minimum marriage age of 18. But Republican representatives Bryan Zollinger and Christy Zito swiftly killed the bill.

This bill and its instantaneous death came after a decade when Idaho was reported to have the highest childhood marriage rates in the United States, between 2000 and 2010.

Zollinger claims the bill “went too far,” which I find ridiculous, seeing how the bill was only raising the minimum age to 18 years old. Then Zollinger said, “marriage is a contract between people that shouldn’t require government permission.” This coming from a member of the party that blockaded marriage equality for years. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of marriage and fully agree it needs no government involvement, except when it comes to the age of the people getting married. But is it contradictory to say marriage needs no government intrusion? In Idaho, judicial review is present in some cases where court approval is necessary for the union.

Zito expressed discomfort with the bill after voting against it. She said by killing the bill she was protecting the “sanctity of family.” Someone explain this to me: How is the prevention of child marriage infringing upon the holiness of a family? I recognize that some families have certain beliefs and understandings that I may not hold, but Zito’s reasoning for killing this bill seems like a mighty stretch. 

Child marriage has been around since the beginning of time. While the concept seems quite foreign to us, it wasn’t so ridiculous to our ancestors. Back in the 18th, 19th and even the early 20th century when a person’s life expectancy didn’t surpass 40 years of age, getting married at the age of 13 or 14 seemed rational. 

Today, life expectancy in the U.S. is almost 80, and people are getting married in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s. This is about a fourth of the way into their lives — the same way 14 years is a quarter of a 40-year life. But getting married as a minor now seems ridiculous.

In two U.S. states — Alabama and Utah — marriage at the age of 14 is completely legal. The United States actually has no common law regarding the minimum marriage age. Basically, the same way each state regulates the age of people receiving driver’s licenses or the minimum wage, every state decides the minimum age of marriage, without federal government involvement. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 36 states allow child marriage with judicial review and 34 states allow it with parental consent.

More than half of American states allow child marriage. Even if it requires parental consent, children should not be getting married. Many kids aren’t even allowed to get into trivial relationships at the age of 14, how is marriage even a discussion? As a 19-year-old, I cannot see myself married right now. At 14, I didn’t even really understand what a true marriage was.

Of course I’ve had the fairy-tale dreams, my “prince charming,” the perfect life beyond school. That doesn’t mean I want it now. Marriage is a serious thing; it is fundamentally the union of two people. Once you’re married, you’re basically agreeing to take this person as your second half, to rely on them and to have them rely on you — for better or for worse. 

Subjecting children to this type of commitment is borderline inhumane. Let’s be honest; these young children, primarily girls, are not running off in a “Romeo and Juliet” love story. These children are being coerced and forced into these large scale commitments. How can you expect someone who is legally classified as a “dependent” to take another as their own? 

Children are being unionized prematurely, and with marriage usually comes parenthood. According to World Atlas, if a child bride under the age of 15 were to become pregnant, they would be five to seven times more likely to die during childbirth compared to a grown woman in her 20s. And, if by some God-given miracle the mother survives, her child has a 60% higher chance of death. These poor children are now risking their lives in order to carry out the effects and expectations of marriage.

Regardless of what you believe, these are still children. Child marriage is stripping these kids of not only their lives, but their childhoods. At the age of 14, a child is just entering high school. They are experiencing the wonders of those mystical four years. Due to their new, sudden union, they can’t experience the sleepovers after a Friday night game, they can’t rejoice at the student picnic, they can’t be reckless because they’ve been thrown into this state of maturity they were never prepared for. And that birthing video from freshman year biology class could show something they’ve personally lived through. 

The holy matrimony of children isn’t something that’s happening thousands of miles away. It’s happening here, in our own country. While legislators take on the fight to stop it in its tracks, it needs to be less of a debate and more of a mutual understanding. Marrying off children is wrong. Children are meant to live their best years, to enjoy everything life throws at them and to be youthful to their fullest extent. They’re not meant to be making families.

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