Girls in White Dresses

Deanna Martin remembers the days before her wedding.

“I can’t pin the emotion that came over me, but it was strong and something in my soul resigned a little bit then too,” says the native of Paso Robles, California, who asked that we not use her real name for personal security reasons. “Like, this is really what’s going to happen.”

She was 15 years old when she was engaged. Sixteen when she married. And she is only one of the estimated thousands of girls married under the age of 18, right here in the United States.

When people in this country think of child marriage, their imaginations turn to images of child brides thousands of miles away, in West Africa or South Asia. They rarely think of the South Bronx or California. And yet, the Tahirih Justice Center, an immigrants-rights organization that has led the fight against forced marriage in this country, reports that between 2009 and 2011 the U.S. saw as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage, many involving girls younger than 18.

Many Americans are surprised to hear that there is no national minimum age of marriage; instead, marriage ages are decided by each state. And nearly every state allows children under the age of 18 to marry in the event of parental or judicial approval. According to state data gathered by the nonprofit Unchained at Last, dedicated to fighting forced marriage in the U.S., between 2000 and 2010 more than 167,000 children nationwide were married. Pew reports that, according to its data, 57,800 minors in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 17 were married over a four-year period. Look at individual states, and the numbers are startling: Between 2004 and 2013, Virginia saw more than 4,500 children married, nearly 4,000 of whom were girls. Maryland saw more than 3,000 children married between 2000 and 2014.

The exact numbers are challenging to pin down given that several states don’t track the ages of brides and grooms at all, and there is little uniformity nationwide in the data states do track. But talk to advocates and community organizers and meet the girls on the front lines of this issue and it is clear that child marriage is happening in the U.S. in numbers great enough to demand real urgency from policymakers.

Like most of the young women whose lives are touched by this issue, Martin never wanted to get married as a girl. “I wanted to date, to be young,” she says now, more than 10 years later. “I wanted some type of freedom to make my own choices. But there was another side of me [that felt] this is what I grew up to do; I knew this was how it was going to be.”

Martin had been brought up in an insular community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, raised by her grandparents and very close to her twin sister. She had been taught to always follow the rules of her family and her faith. Despite not wanting to be a bride, she didn’t feel she had any way to stop the wedding— especially once a judge approved her marriage, a legal requirement given that she was underage. Like most states, California sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, but exceptions to the law facilitate thousands of marriages like Martin’s each year. “I was so young, I wasn’t able to process my feelings or make other people listen to my feelings. When you’re 16 years old, the skills of asserting yourself just aren’t there,” Martin says. “I really felt like I couldn’t go outside of my family for help. I had no idea who the person—agency—who it would be that I would take my problems to.”

So she got married. Like so many girls that Ramatu Bangura met when she worked in the South Bronx—none of whom she has been able to forget.

“I’ve spent the past 20 years of my career working for girls on a whole host of different issues,” says Bangura, who is now at the NoVo Foundation. “I think the degree of helplessness I’ve felt around this issue [has] probably been the most, the worst. …[S]ome of them were young girls, maybe early teens, that were being forced into marriages.”

Bangura says that in immigrant communities, the isolation girls feel is amplified by hostility they may encounter as newcomers. Trying to get help for girls whose parents wanted to take them from New York City to their West African home country for marriage was nearly impossible.

“If she was being taken out of the country for a marriage, what we were left to do was kind of figure out how to best protect her,” Bangura says. “We knew she was going to go, she was going to have to get married, she was going to have to have sex with her new husband and there was a possibility she could become pregnant. And so we had to take her to get a birth control shot to help prevent her becoming pregnant.”

In other words, she says, they had to prepare these girls for unwanted sex. As advocates working in a system that had no idea what to do when it encountered the issue of forced marriage, they had no other way to help. “There need to be resources when girls are in crisis,” Bangura says, even if that is “a space to think and to figure out what that next step is and to plan what that next step is. Or to negotiate with the family, for there to be an intervention. And sometimes child welfare workers will do that, but most child welfare workers that I’ve encountered are not equipped for the conversations that need to happen.”

Advocates who have dedicated their lives to creating those resources share Bangura’s desire to do more for U.S. girls facing forced marriage. And they say they were just as shocked as she was initially to see this issue happening here at home. “More and more I was getting calls from girls under 18, but it was really heartbreaking to see there was nothing I could do,” says Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, the New Jersey-based organization focused on ending child and forced marriage throughout the country.

Reiss launched the nonprofit in 2011 after leaving her own forced marriage following years of abuse. She says she was startled a few years back when she began hearing from girls seeking help to avoid their forced marriages. She found that none of the usual tools she and her team use to help clients worked when the client was a minor.

“One of the ways we help our adult clients is to bring a legal action. These are impossible for a child,” Reiss says. “As girls would reach out and ask for help, they would resort to self-harm or suicide attempts. Some would cut off contact. Others would just give up and say they’ll go along with the marriage. And we know what that means: On their wedding night they’ll be raped.”

Reiss points to research showing that in the U.S., women who marry before the age of 19 are 31 percent more likely to live in poverty, 18 times more likely to be beaten by a spouse and 50 percent more likely than an unmarried peer to drop out of high school. Seeking to fight the practice, she set out to determine how widespread the issue was by gathering data, state by state, as much as she could. What she learned stunned her. “I grew up in a [ultra-Orthodox Jewish] community where child marriage is common and even I was shocked at the extent of the problem,” Reiss says.

That shock motivated Reiss to join forces with the Tahirih Justice Center, whose leaders also found themselves wading into this issue they never expected to confront. After attorneys and caseworkers at their national headquarters in Virginia began receiving call upon call from girls around the country looking to avoid becoming brides, Tahirih’s leaders believed they had no other choice but to figure out what could be done to help and to spread the word that the issue was happening here at home. Tahirih began hosting regular webinars aimed at spreading best practices and strategies for combating forced marriage to other nonprofits facing the issue.

Working together, Unchained at Last and Tahirih have been targeting state legislatures and working to pass laws aimed at making 18 the minimum age of marriage with few to no exceptions permitted. Until last year—when Virginia enacted a law that blocked child marriage unless the children became legally emancipated adults—every U.S. state had at least one exception to its minimum age of marriage law. Today legislation has been introduced in a number of states, including Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire and New York. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have banned marriage in the state for anyone under the age of 18.

While winning supporters for the legislation hasn’t been hard, getting actual bills passed has proved more challenging than Reiss expected.
“I honestly believed the only reasons these [laws permitting marriage under the age of 18] existed is because people didn’t know they existed. I thought if I showed legislators the studies, et cetera, they would be lining up to pass this legislation,” Reiss says. “I was stunned by the questions I was getting, that there was this much pushback. That legislators actually voted no to end child marriage.” Among the reasons lawmakers have given Reiss for opposing the legislation: sensitivities to religious traditions, belief that it is best for a pregnant teen to marry and concern that teenage U.S. service members and their partners be able to wed before deploying overseas.

California is among the states now considering legislation to end child marriage. State Sen. Jerry Hill, who introduced the measure, says that he understands some people claim child marriage is part of their culture but that a lot of practices in the past have had to evolve.
“This legislation does not affect the right of anyone to worship or enjoy their culture. But we’re talking about law,” Hill says. “We’ve taken this action before for certain practices that are prohibited by state law. Bigamy is a religious practice, if you look at it, or female genital mutilation is something that someone could say is a cultural factor that people think has some significance somewhere. Well, we don’t in this country and we don’t in this state. It shouldn’t be, and that’s what we’re standing up to and up for, and I think that this legislation is consistent with those beliefs and with the rights of our citizens.”

For her part, Reiss says that anyone who wants to make this about any one culture or any one community is wrong. “Our clients come from all major religions and secular backgrounds as well: from immigrant families, from many different countries of origin and families who have been American for generations,” Reiss says. “We don’t see many patterns in our clients other than that they are almost always girls, and always determined to get out of the marriage.”

And it was exactly this—a girl determined to get out of the marriage—that led to Hill learning about the issue. One of Hill’s constituents, a high school student, came across forced marriage facing a teenage girl in her community and couldn’t believe no one could help.

“I heard about a story about forced child marriage right here in the Silicon Valley, which prompted me to do some research about it because I was like, ‘I can’t even believe that’s something that would even be legal here,’” says Aliesa Bahri, now a junior in high school. “I did some basic research about child marriage to find out if it’s something that was lawful in California and I found out that California has the sixth-highest rate of child marriage per capita in the United States.”

Bahri immediately set out to enlist legislators to help stop the practice; Hill was the first to answer her call. Bahri says she would like to see other young people step up to stop child marriage in their states until the issue no longer threatens any girls in the country.

“We all have access to the office of our local representatives,” Bahri says. “We can contact their offices, we can schedule appointments, and even if we can’t speak directly to them, our messages can get passed up the chain of command.”

On the eve of her second wedding anniversary, Martin became a widow when her husband was killed in a traffic accident. She continues to rebuild her life as a single mother to a young son whose future she hopes is very different from her own. And she says she is thankful to see Hill and Bahri and all the other activists and supporters battling to protect girls in the U.S.—protection she says she wishes she had as a girl. She plans to join them in lobbying the California Legislature to pass the bill to end child marriage.

“It altered my future. Forever. There’s no going back,” Martin says. “I don’t want other girls to have their futures altered the way mine was.”
Adds Martin, “That’s my hope, that when I’m an old, old lady we won’t have a generation of young girls behind me that are child brides.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to support our reporting and read more features like this one.

Researchers at the University of Southern California are surveying anyone married in the U.S. before the age of 18 in order to influence future legislation on the issue. All participants can complete the survey anonymously and decide whether they want to explain their story in detail. Click here to participate.



Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.