California has declined to join countries as varied as England, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic, along with states across the United States, in banning marriage before age 18 — as called for under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Instead, as The Sacramento Bee reported recently, California law continues to allow children of any age to marry. More than 8,000 children in California are married each year, according to U.S. census data.
Sex with a child under age 18 is a crime in California — unless the adult marries the child first.
Child marriage is not a gender-neutral problem. Nearly all underage marriage in the U.S. involves girls wed to adult men.
And it’s not a maturity problem. Teens do not wake up on their 18th birthday with newfound maturity. Rather, they wake up with the rights of adulthood that are crucial to avoid or escape a forced marriage: leaving home, entering a domestic violence shelter, retaining an attorney and independently bringing a legal action.
Marriage for a minor who does not yet have these rights creates a horrible legal trap, even for those who are brave enough to reach out to Unchained At Last, the nonprofit organization I lead to combat forced and child marriage in the U.S. If we help a minor escape, we could face criminal charges.
Indeed, child marriage should be considered a form of forced marriage, which is a form of modern slavery. Child marriage also is recognized as a human rights abuse; it destroys nearly every aspect of an American girl’s life, including her sexual and reproductive rights.
The simple solution is legislation that nine (soon to be 10) U.S. states have passed in recent years, with bipartisan support, to make the marriage age 18 with no exceptions. Such legislation costs nothing and harms no one except child rapists.
I am a forced marriage survivor-turned-activist who is on the front lines of this fight, helping hundreds of individuals escape forced marriage.
Banning child marriage in no way endangers reproductive rights. Both the U.S. and California supreme courts have noted that states should treat minors’ abortion differently from minors’ marriage because abortion is time sensitive while marriage is not. Besides, the California constitution explicitly guarantees reproductive freedom, as does the state Reproductive Privacy Act.
While marriage is a fundamental right protected by the 14th Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that states may (and do) limit it by age. In fact, California is one of only six states that do not impose a minimum age for marriage, and even California requires judicial approval for marriage before age 18.
Requiring parental “consent” to child marriage in no way protects children from forced marriage. When someone is forced to wed, their own parents almost always play a crucial role in facilitating it. Judicial review does not help either: It puts the onus on a terrified child to figure out a safe way to communicate their predicament to the judge.
No “good reason” exists for a child to marry. A girl in an abusive home can get resources that do not require her to find a husband. A teen who is ready for legal independence can seek emancipation. Having a baby “out of wedlock” is legal and has been documented to be healthier than the alternative. A pregnant teen who marries is more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability than a pregnant teen who stays single.
The world cannot keep its promise to end child marriage by year 2030 if California continues to hold up progress. California lawmakers must pass legislation and finally get on the right side of history.
Fraidy Reiss, a Los Angeles native, is a forced marriage survivor turned activist. She is the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a survivor-led nonprofit working to end forced and child marriage in the U.S.