[reading time: 8 minutes + 20 minutes video]
She was 11 years old when he began molesting her. The 30-year-old man raped Dawn multiple times until he eventually impregnated her more than a year after he first assaulted her. That’s when the girl’s parents found out about the exploitations, the molestations, the rapes. Many would rush to the police and press charges against this man. Dawn’s parents had a different plan. They decided the then 13-year-old had to marry the father of her baby. Dawn Tyree’s marriage to her rapist occurred over thirty years ago. Sadly, she was neither the first nor the last, underaged girl in America to be forced to marry a much older man who had taken advantage of a minor. Despite the country’s fight on the global stage to end child marriages – the Obama Administration’s State Department called it a “human rights abuse” – 48 U.S. states currently allow children to get married in their jurisdictions. In most of them, children aged sixteen and seventeen can marry with the consent of their parents. (Even crying in front of the clerk as a parent signs the consent form won’t stop the marriage.) Many others also allow a judge to lower the marriage age below sixteen. In some states, the law does not specify a minimum age.
Between 2000 and 2010 estimates indicate around 248,000 minors married an adult in the United States. The minors, mostly girls, were as was, for example, the case in Louisiana, as young as 12. Marriage could thus serve as a “get out of jail” card for older men. In South Carolina, where a 16-year-old marrying a 60-year-old was amongst the nearly 7,000 child marriages performed over the last 2 decades, a legal loophole protects these men from statutory rape charges. Although state law currently bans all marriages under sixteen, the legal age restriction disappears if the bride is pregnant. Even members at the state capitol claimed to be unaware of this particular loophole. In January, the state House, as well as the state Senate, unanimously passed respective bills eliminating the loophole (and, in the case of the House bill, increase the legal age at 18). One of the leading political voices to eliminate the loophole is Republican state Senator Shealy, who, at the time of her election in 2012, became the only female representative in the Senate chamber.
While the effort of Senator Shealy and others is currently making its way through the political and legal process, similar bills in other states got stopped in their tracks.
None perhaps highlights the enormity of the task for organisations like Unchained, which fights to end all child marriages, better than the story of Cassandra’s bill. The proposed New Hampshire state bill would have raised the age of consent to eighteen. Its proponent was Cassandra Levesque, a girl scout who was shocked that girls as young as thirteen could legally wed in her state. She launched a campaign to change the law. While some welcomed the campaign, other politicians in Concord were none too pleased. David Bates, a Republican state representative, was among those that dismissed the initiative, claiming, “We’re asking the Legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project.” The Republican-led state House eventually killed the bill.
In New Jersey, where over 1,800 kids got married, including a 13-year-old, it was another Republican who blocked a change of law. The bill, blocked by Governor Christie, would have raised the legal age to eighteen. After Democrat Phil Murphy moved into the Governor’s mansion, politicians in Trenton immediately tried again, and in June 2018, the Garden State became the second state after Delaware (the Democratic Governor John Carney “beat” Murphy by a couple of weeks) to cement the legal age at eighteen.
Escaping the horror
Changing the law could not be of greater importance. Figures show a girl entering marriage before her eighteenth birthday is up to 3 times more likely to have been beaten by their spouses than women who married at 21 or older. In fact, data from the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention shows 16-to-19-year-old girls face the highest rates of domestic violence. As a result, their health conditions worsen, their risk of developing cancer, suffering a heart attack grow by a staggering 23 per cent compared to their unmarried friends.
“We’re asking the Legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project.”
Seeking help from organisations like Unchained might be the easiest step as almost every attempt at actually escaping their (forced) marriage ends in a dead-end.
A minor, married or not, who runs away is considered a runaway and might even be facing criminal charges. As a result, domestic violence shelters simply refuse to accept anyone below the age of eighteen. They could get a bed at a youth shelter, but only for a short period – usually up to 3 weeks. The shelter’s social worker then attempts to reunify the minor and the adult. Child protective services don’t offer a helping hand either since they aren’t responsible for the prevention of (or escape from) legal marriages. More crucially, there are legal challenges to obtaining a “simple” divorce. Contracts between lawyers and minors are usually void. Most attorneys, therefore, refuse to offer any services to them. But even if they wanted to help an underaged wife, they could not do so as children are prohibited by law from initiating any legal proceedings in their name. Unchained, which might itself face charges when offering to help, claims many girls despair after learning the true state of their (seemingly) hopeless situation. Some, the group says, then attempt suicide to put a definite, if sad, end to their ordeal.
Children who find the power within them to fight on until their eighteenth birthday do have a path to escape the marriages. Up to eighty per cent of child marriages in the US end in a divorce. Some go on to live a happier life, albeit struggling with mental health issues as a result of their ordeals. But others run right back into another misogynistic U.S. law targeting vulnerable women – which we will explore in the second part of this series.