In Virginia, State Sen. Jill Vogel (R) decided to look into her state’s marriage laws after she heard the tale of “a man in his early 50s marrying a girl in her mid-teens.”
“Our marriage laws in Virginia are not protecting children,” Vogel told the Associated Press. Now she’s pushing a bill through the legislature that would ban child marriage.
The problem is especially prevalent in immigrant communities, partly because the child-marriages are used to help get green cards for foreign men, said Fraidy Reiss, the head of Unchained at Last, an advocacy group looking to end child marriage.
“We are finding forced marriage among immigrant communities among 56 different countries of origin at least that have been identified,” Reiss told Breitbart.
Child marriage is extremely common outside the United States, but advocates say there are thousands of marriages inside the United States where older people — usually men — marry teenagers, some of whom are already pregnant.
The issue was brought to the forefront in the U.S. in 2011 when Doug Hutchinson, a TV actor in his 50s, married 16-year-old Courtney Stodden. The pairing had been troubled from the start and soon fell apart with Stodden saying the 34-year age difference was just too much to overcome. Yet by 2014, the pair were reconciling after a trial separation.
Reiss told the AP that there are no official statistics on how many underage people marry in the United States. She estimates that during the last 20 years, nearly 3,500 minors married in New Jersey and as many as 3,853 were married in New York. In Virginia, there are up to 4,500 child-brides and grooms.
Breitbart News contacted Reiss and she said that many people are shocked and say “They can’t believe this is happening in their state.” She added that when people find out, they want to help stop it.
With her organization, Reiss said, “We are trying to empower children to be able to make their own choices on something as important as marriage.”
The groups with the most child marriages are segregated communities of immigrant Muslims, plus orthodox Jews, Mormons and various ethnic groups who live in enclaves strictly observing their religions and cultural practices. Naila Amin, from New York, is one example of immigrant child-marriage. According to the Associated Press:
Amin says her parents, who brought her to the U.S. as a 4-year-old, grew wary of her American-style social life when she entered her teens and the ensuing friction led to her being placed in foster care. When Amin ran away from foster care and returned to her family, they took to her to Pakistan as a 15-year-old and forced her to marry a 28-year-old cousin who beat and mistreated her.
“For the next few months, I cooked, cleaned and slept with my husband — my enemy,” Amin wrote.
In October, Reiss told NPR that all too often these arranged marriages are used as immigration ploys. Girls born in the U.S. are sent to their parents’ home country, only to find they were sent there to marry a man so he can then enter the United States because of his marriage to a U.S. citizen. “Typically, the husband will then apply for a U.S. visa because he is now married to a U.S. citizen,” Reiss said, “and eventually they return to the U.S.”
The activist published a piece in the New York Times last October where she warned that allowing minors to marry simply by parental consent is not enough.
In her piece, Reiss noted, “one person’s ‘parental consent’ can be another’s ‘parental coercion,’ but state laws typically do not call for anyone to investigate whether a child is marrying willingly. Even in the case of a girl’s sobbing openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk usually has no authority to intervene. In fact, in most states there are no laws that specifically forbid forced marriage.”
Reiss told Breitbart, “Forced marriages happen almost everywhere in this country.”
Reiss continued, saying, “What we’ve seen anecdotally from our clients is that arranged and forced marriages are happening across a really wide range of communities. We’re talking about non-immigrant as well as immigrant communities.”
While certainly not exclusive to Muslims, the problem is being compounded by Muslim immigrants hoping to become U.S. citizens in a speedy manner.
“Sometimes we see immigration issues if a girl is a U.S. citizen and the family marries her off to somebody overseas that foreign person can get immigration status through this marriage and that might help the family gain standing or a financial advantage there,” Reiss said.
“What we have seen at Unchained is often the reason a family is forcing a girl into marriage is because of her U.S. citizenship,” Reiss confirmed to Breitbart, “and that is her value to her new husband. And sometimes they are forced at gunpoint into a marriage and of course that is a form of human trafficking.”
Reiss said that a large number of cases are seen coming from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also from India.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also argues against child, early, and forced marriages.
On its website, USAID says, marriages of minors “impedes girls’ education and increases early pregnancy and the risk of maternal mortality, obstetric complications, gender-based violence, and HIV/AIDS. Children of young mothers have higher rates of infant mortality and malnutrition compared to children of mothers older than.” The group adds, child marriage “is also associated with reductions in economic productivity for individuals and nations at large.”
Ultimately Reiss’s organization would like to see state laws governing underage marriage changed to empower minors to have more of a say in their situation in order to ascertain if the youths are free of coercion by ending the exceptions allowing parents to sign off on such marriages as a lone requirement for legitimacy.
In almost every state, the minimum age for marriage is 18, but Reiss notes that every state has exceptions. “Probably the most common exception across the U.S.,” the activist noted, “is parental consent which lowers the age to 16 in most states.”
“The problem with parental consent is that there is no process in place to be sure that it’s not actually parental coercion,” Reiss explained:
It’s a parent’s signature on a form that’s handed in to a clerk. And we know of cases where girls have gone to these clerks offices with their parents and were sobbing openly because they didn’t want to get married, but even if a clerk saw it and thought it was terrible there is nothing in the law that says the clerk may decide not to issue the marriage license even if it looks like the girl doesn’t agree with the marriage.
Reiss also pointed out that these minors are too young to “access the resources to legally protect themselves” from this type of coercion. In most states, minors are not legally allowed to make the decision to enter a youth shelter or a domestic violence shelter without a parent’s permission.
Finally, Reiss wanted to encourage states to create civil laws to address forced marriage so that minors are not forced to bring criminal proceedings against their own parents.
Reiss also warned that this issue is mostly a women’s rights issue because in most cases it is older men marrying young girls. Often times, these are nothing short of government sanctioned rape.
“We need to put a stop to all this, and ending those exceptions that allow children to get married is a no brainer,” she said. “It takes survivors speaking up and activists speaking up to force people to stop ignoring these problems.”
Finally, as activists ring alarm bells of the plight of these mostly female underage spouses, legislators are beginning to take notice. Along with the efforts of Virginia, new rules are being proposed in New Jersey, New York, and Maryland.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston, or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.