Gender And Sexuality Column

Thompson: New York may have banned child marriage, but much of the U.S. is still stuck in the past

Victoria Thomas | Contributing Illustrator

Child marriage seems like something out of a third-world country, but 9.4 million women in the United States actually married before they were 18 years old.

It’s 2017 — not 1917 — and New York state just joined the rest of the common sense party in outlawing child marriages.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed into legislation a law prohibiting marriage before the age of 17 for state residents. Cuomo joined a growing number of states to ban minor marriages on the grounds of child safety — taking something old and preventing it from becoming something blue.

Still, 27 states allow this outdated practice. In a country that prohibits driving until 16, serving in the armed forces until 18 and drinking alcohol until 21, it’s comforting to know the country’s priorities are straight when it comes to legal matrimony and all the implications that follow — or not.

When Americans think of child marriages, they often envision developing countries where women are openly degraded as second-class citizens and do not have equal say or jurisdiction in their own independence. But a 2016 report from the Tahirih Justice Center found that 8.9 percent of women in the United States alone married underage. That’s 9.4 million women across the country.

Between 2000 and 2010, more than 3,800 children under age 18 were married in New york state.

Andy Mendes | Digital design editor

If that doesn’t hit close enough to home, New York granted marriage licenses to 3,850 minors from 2000 to 2010, according to Unchained At Last, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to help women and girls avoid or leave arranged marriages. The youngest minor issued a marriage license between that period was just 14 years old.

The mere notion that, in 2017, American women face laws as dangerous and degrading as ones found in developing countries is disgraceful at best. There is no justice or rationale behind an adolescent girl signing her life away on a major decision like marriage — a decision she’s likely not even making freely.

Jean Bucaria, the deputy director of the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, said marrying off young girls is predatory and dangerous to their well-being.

“Even when you look at the international community, child marriage is equated to human rights abuse,” Bucaria said. “When you see child marriages, you see a major red flag as to whether or not the decision was made by the individual versus if they were coerced.”

Some argue that child marriage is a cultural practice, something we should just let stand in other countries. But it’s simply not something Americans should accept as part of their culture.

A teenage girl’s biggest decision at 14 years old should be whether she wants to try out for the basketball or lacrosse team, or which homecoming dress is her favorite. She should be able to go through high school and college, then choose to transition to adult life on her own accord.

Major decisions like marriage are designed to come later in life — not when adolescents are already trying to come to terms with all the physical, emotional and psychological changes they’re going through.

Child marriage also pushes young girls into a cycle of control and, potentially, violence. Girls who marry before 21 are three times more likely to be beaten by their husbands, and 31 percent more likely to end up living in poverty, according to the New York state governor’s office. This cycle is especially difficult to escape while underage and naive to legal rights.

Even though New York has recognized the harms of child marriage, too much of the country still allows this outdated practice to continue.

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Andy Mendes | Digital design editor

We perpetuate it in our laws, with 27 states still refusing to pass laws to prevent child marriage. And we perpetuate it in our culture, excusing and justifying our perverse sexualization of girls based on the clothing they wear or how maturely they present themselves.

Regardless of how you dress it up, child marriage is abuse. And it’s still happening here.

Kelsey Thompson is a junior magazine journalism major. Her column appears biweekly. She can be reached at katho101@syr.edu.

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