“We cannot possibly address issues of domestic violence and poverty and inaccessibility to educational opportunities, to break those cycles, if we do not pass common sense legislative reform [on child marriage].”
Child marriage, or any legally binding marriage where one or both parties are below the age of 18, occurs at particularly high rates in North Carolina, which ties with Alaska for the youngest legal age of marriage. (The top three states for child marriage as of 2017—Texas, Florida and Kentucky—have all reformed their legislation and significantly reduced child marriage rates since.)
According to state law, a child can legally get married in North Carolina at age 14—though some marriage records show legally binding marriages involving girls as young as 12.
Not surprisingly, then, anecdotal evidence suggests North Carolina is becoming a common destination for adults to take children when their marriage is illegal in their home states.
A new study by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) reveals the startling reality and grim consequences of child marriage in the U.S.
Analysis from the ICRW study shows that between the years 2000 and 2015, 8,781 total minors were listed on marriage license applications in the state—the majority of these applications being between a minor and an adult. Only 7 percent of applications involved two minors.
ICRW estimates 9,127 marriage license applications involving minors were submitted in North Carolina between 2000 and 2019. In completed marriages involving a child under age 15, 30 percent had partners that were four or five years older than them—where non-marital sex between the two would be a Class-C felony.
Due to data limitations, it is unknown just how many of these marriages are the product of child rape or incest, but an alarming number of marriage applications that were approved in North Carolina were granted to relationships that would have been considered a Class-B felony under state statutory rape laws. However, the legal bounds of marriage provide a loophole, so these laws and penalties do not apply. The researchers even found one marriage with a 40-year age gap between the spouses—and the union was entirely legal.
“As a mother of two girls, I cannot imagine how stymied their education, health and wellbeing—and their future lives would be if stolen away by marriage at age 14,” said Machelle Sanders of the North Carolina Department of Administration in a press release. “This alarming data is a clarion call for change.”
A “Preventable” Problem With a Simple Solution
The ICRW recommends a simple legislative reform: Set the minimum age of marriage at 18, without exceptions.
“[We work on] so many issues that can seem overwhelming; this is really one that is preventable,” ICRW senior director of policy and advocacy Lyric Thompson said in a webinar held to discuss the reports.
Some protections exist in North Carolina for marriages at the age of 14 or 15, which, as in four other states, are considered in the instance of a teen pregnancy. However, the only requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds is parental consent, which can increase the incidence of coerced or unsafe marriages.
“Many have reported that they were forced to marry their rapists in an attempt to shield their rapists from prosecution for forcible or statutory rape; to cover up case of child abuse, neglect or exploitation; or left to suffer other lifelong, irreparable harm from being married so young,” the report explains.
While married minors are automatically emancipated, marriage also obscures access to education, healthcare and domestic violence services for children.
“That empowerment comes far too late for someone who needed it to prevent a marriage that they didn’t want in the first place,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at Tahirih Justice Center.
When studied on a national level, the long-term effects of child marriages were substantial. The ICRW report states:
“Girls who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely than unmarried girls to drop out of high school and 4 times less likely to complete college.”
They also face dramatically increased risks of falling into poverty and of developing health complications such as depression, diabetes, cancer or strokes. A 2019 study confirms that 18 out of 20 women who married as minors reported violent or emotional partner abuse, and 11 out of 20 reported financial abuse during their marriages.
Even in the event of teen pregnancy, the dangers of child marriage far outweigh the perceived merits:
“There is no evidence to support the claim that child marriage in the U.S. is protective for girls or that it results in better outcomes for these new families. Instead, the evidence shows that remaining unmarried, even in the case of pregnancy, has better outcomes for teen mothers and their children.”
Donna Pollard, community enrichment officer of Survivors’ Corner, recalled that she was unsuccessful in escaping her child marriage because apartments could not legally enter contracts with her, and the local high school turned her away. She wasn’t even able to obtain medical care for miscarriage complications without her perpetrator’s consent.
“We cannot possibly address issues of domestic violence and poverty and inaccessibility to educational opportunities, to break those cycles, if we do not pass common sense legislative reform [on child marriage],” Pollard said. “And we also have to stop letting perpetrators hide their offenses behind marriage licenses.”
Drew Reisinger, the register of deeds in Buncombe County, N.C., hopes the new studies will help lawmakers understand the urgency of prohibiting child marriage.
“Legislative inaction on child marriage has essentially turned us into a sanctuary state for statutory rape,” Reisinger said. “Time after time, sympathetic legislators, who had good intentions and they wanted to help, said, ‘We can’t really do anything until you show us the data.’”
Although ICRW’s efforts are more focused on research, they hope their partnership with the Tahirih Justice Center and newly acquired evidence will push lawmakers towards reform.
“Knowledge is power, and knowledge can lead to change,” Sanders said. “It’s high time to protect all women and all children in our state.”