Girls who marry young are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate college.
We are two high school seniors, both age 17, from Chatham County, N.C. We’re good friends and have been attending Woods Charter School since Kindergarten. These days we split our time between online school, our extracurriculars and hanging out with friends (masked and socially distanced, of course). You can typically find us camping on Jordan Lake, exploring new spots around our town or just huddled in some blankets outside after work discussing what’s new. Next year, we will both attend college and plan to study Sociology and Biology. This is an exciting time in our lives, and we’re cherishing every moment of it.
Marriage is the last thing on our minds.
Months ago, when we first got on a call with the Tahirih Justice Center, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The two of us were representing our Girl’s Learn International (GLI) chapter in potential engagement with Tahirih’s initiatives. Right away, we were shocked to learn how dire the child marriage situation is in North Carolina. How could we have not known about this stark reality of our home state? Immediately we knew we had to do something about it and set off to further educate ourselves on the issue.
As it turns out,the situation is much worse than we could have imagined. Research from the International Center for Research on Women shows that over 4,000 minors were listed on marriage license applications in just 50 North Carolina counties between 2000 and 2019. That number is estimated to be close to 10,000 for the entire state.
Even more shocking to us was that nearly 93 percent of those minors were marrying an adult, not another minor. Meaning that, for the most part, these are not high school sweethearts. In fact, over 200 minors married an adult at least 10 years older than themselves, and 26 minors married an adult 20 or more years older.
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We couldn’t believe that teenagers are being married to adults who are up to two decades older than them. We were also shocked to hear that minors as young as 14 and 15 can get married in the case of pregnancy. The dual burden of being a teen parent and a teen spouse is hard for us to imagine.
But those statistics don’t tell you all you need to know about child marriage. There are a number of negative consequences of child marriage that are rarely talked about. After reading survivor stories and learning more about this issue, we know that in many instances, it is the parents—the very people that are supposed to love and support you—that are forcing and coercing their children to get married for reasons we honestly struggle to understand.
But, even if by choice, child marriage can have a devastating impact, especially for young girls. Child marriage can disrupt a girl’s future by derailing her plans for education and a career, ultimately making her more likely to live in poverty.
U.S.-based research shows that girls who marry young are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate college. In fact, survivors have shared that even when they were determined to finish their education despite being forced or pressured to drop out, school systems would turn them away and their spouses would make it so hard to enroll or remain in school that they felt helpless to overcome these barriers. They were effectively shut out of education as a result of being married and then isolated from their friends and other supportive people in their lives.
At such a formative time, it’s hard to think of how scary it would be to become forcefully detached from friends and family, having to move counties away to be with someone much older than us. Higher education and pursuing our dreams are the reasons that motivate us both to leave our little community, not being shackled to someone we barely know.
And what happens if a girl isn’t allowed to finish her education? Without education it’s harder to get a job, and in child marriage situations, victims are often told they aren’t allowed to work because they should be focusing on being a wife and mother. In some cases, abusive spouses prevent them from working, and survivors often have their employment and financial prospects sabotaged by abusers who control their access to transportation, refuse to assist with childcare, or insist on collecting and controlling the victim’s paycheck.
It’s easy to connect the dots from being cut off from education to the sad truth that girls who marry underage are up to 31 percentage points more likely to live in future poverty. And survivors are speaking up about what it felt like to be set up to be dependent on state benefits once they were finally able to get out of the marriage many years later. That’s not the future they would have chosen for themselves, and not the future they had planned. And it’s hard—harder than most of us can ever know—to start over from scratch as an adult after having your education and career prospects derailed at such a young age.
And yet, even in the face of those challenges, there are survivors that have rebuilt their lives and are speaking out to end child marriage. Some have founded their own organizations, like Donna Pollard, who created Survivor’s Corner and Sherry Johnson, the founder of the Svon Foundation. Others are attorneys or doctors. All of them have wondered allowed how much farther along they would be in their lives and careers had they not been married so young and they know, better than anyone, all the reasons why child marriage is wrong. We owe it to them to listen.
We are two high school students with exciting prospects. We have futures that were made possible by our education and the support of our community. It is hard to imagine what our lives would look like now if instead we were facing the pressure to get married. We will soon be attending our high school graduation and headed off to college and we are both excited to be in new places, with boundless research opportunities and the chance to pursue our careers. We know we wouldn’t have this opportunity to chart our own path in life if we didn’t have our high school education, which is one of the many reasons why child marriage is so damaging.
This is why the Tahirih Justice Center’s campaign to end child marriage is so important to us. North Carolina has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the United States. As teenagers born and raised in North Carolina, we feel a responsibility to fight for others our age.
Instead of leaving it to adults to say what is and is not in our best interest, let’s tell them ourselves: End child marriage. If you want to learn more or get involved, contact the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Initiative at FMI@tahirih.org or reach out to your North Carolina representative to tell them why ending child marriage is important to you.
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