The age of consent to marry in most [US] states is 18. However, in several states, if a parent and/or a judge agree to waive that requirement, children as young as 13 can be married, and in 27 states, there is no minimum age to marry.
In 2010, nearly 10,000 minors got married in the U.S., the vast majority of them underage girls married to adult men. Between 2000 and 2015, 86 percent of the reported 207,468 child marriages that took place in the United States were between minors and adults (eight states did not report data). Only 14 percent were between two minors—a “Romeo and Juliet” situation.
Opponents of child marriage point out that the practice is largely detrimental to girls. Girls who marry at a young age have poor educational outcomes, high rates of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, are more likely to be physically and sexually abused, suffer from higher rates of depression and mental health problems, and their families are more likely to end in poverty.
Many states set the minimum marriage age for girls lower than for boys. Other states waive the age requirements if a girl is pregnant or has a child, which means an adult can get out of statutory rape charges by marrying his victim. Since the bride remains a minor, she has few rights in the event of an abusive marriage. In many states, the girl cannot file for divorce until she turns 18. In some states, minors cannot access domestic violence shelters. Girls between 16 and 19 experience the highest rates of domestic violence.
“When somebody aged 17 or younger called us, there was almost nothing we could do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway,” said Fraidy Reiss, the director of Unchained At Last, an organization that is lobbying legislators to raise the marriage age to 18. “If we manage to get her to a shelter, most shelters would turn her away.”
If a child marriage doesn’t work out, after divorce, a former child bride is ill-prepared to become independent, often lacking an education, job experience or even the ability to drive. According to a 2010 study, women who married as minors are 31% more likely to live in poverty.
“It’s devastating how trapped they become,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, tells Teen Vogue. “I definitely would say that legislators do not seem to get it.”