The states that allow child marriages mostly do so in particular circumstances, such as with the permission of a parent and a judge. These safeguards don’t work very well. The marriages sometimes involve a girl, perhaps pregnant, marrying an older man who may be her rapist.
The new study found that 60,000 of the child marriages since 2000 involved couples with a large enough gap in ages that sex would typically be a crime. “The marriage license became a get-out-of-jail-free card in most of those states,” said Fraidy Reiss, a victim of forced marriage who founded Unchained at Last.
There are, of course, 17-year-olds who fall deeply in love and can handle a marriage. We can understand that if a girl becomes pregnant, the couple may prefer to marry right away. But it’s complicated: The legal system withholds many rights from people under 18, so a married 17-year-old can become trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare.
If the marriage sours, an underage girl will often not be accepted at a women’s shelter. She will have difficulty retaining a lawyer to get assistance. Astonishingly, she may even have trouble getting divorced, because children often cannot initiate a legal proceeding without going through a guardian. And if a minor flees a violent husband, the police may send her right back to her abuser.
That’s what happened to Abatemarco.
Her marriage at 14 didn’t work. Within months, Abatemarco said, Mark began beating her almost daily and sometimes the new baby as well. (Mark died in 2008, so I don’t know his version of events.)
One night, she said, she fled a beating and was walking on the road about midnight with her baby in a stroller. A police officer stopped her for violating curfew, drove her and the baby back home, gave a copy of the written warning to her husband and then drove off.
“My husband then beat me,” Abatemarco said.
Eventually, Abatemarco fled for good and put her baby daughter up for adoption. With the help of her parents, she was able to get a divorce — on a school day, with enough time to catch her 11th-grade English class.