It seems unthinkable that children are still getting married in 21st-century America. Yet, it's happening in every corner of the country, regardless of state politics, popular opinion or moral leanings. And it occurs more often than we realize, to children younger than we might believe. Perhaps most shockingly, it's happening in ways that are perfectly legal.
"Child marriage is a significant problem in America," Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, says in an email. Her nonprofit agency promotes social, policy and legal change to child marriage, and helps women escape forced marriages. "It's happening at an alarming rate." According to a recent Unchained at Last study, between 2000 and 2010, in just 38 states, more than 167,000 children as young as age 10 were married — mostly girls to adult men. "The other 12 states don't track the data, but based on the available data, Unchained estimates that nearly a quarter-million children were married in America just between 2000 and 2010," adds Reiss.
The numbers may seem large, but they don't even paint the full, honest picture of child marriage in America. When Frontline requested additional data to compile information from 41 states, it found that 207,468 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. And even that number didn't take into account the fact that states like New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada only keep marriage records at the county level, and nine states didn't provide data at all.
"Up until the last two years when the Tahirih Justice Center and Unchained at Last began to expose and raise the profile of the problem, many people had no idea of the numbers involved, how young girls were being married or how large the age differences could be, or how state laws could permit this to happen," says Jeanne L. Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services, policy advocacy, and training and education to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence. It also and offers assistance to anyone facing or fleeing a forced marriage. "Many of these state laws haven't been changed in decades (or longer), and so many people may have assumed child marriage was a thing of the past in the U.S."