Amid claims that COVID-19 has led to an exponential increase in child sex trafficking, government data reports the astounding increase in child marriages in just the past decade.
More than 200,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the United States between 2000 and 2015, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Frontline reported that more than 80 percent of these child marriages were between minors and adults. Most of these marriages are underaged girls marrying adult men.
The individuals can legally make and get the approval for child brides because the Immigration and Nationality Act does not have a minimum age requirement for either party.
Instead, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services looks at whether the marriage is legal in the home country of the couple and the state in which the petitioner is living.
Currently, there is no federal law that addresses child marriages. The law-making decisions are instead delegated to the states.
It was not until 2018 when Delaware became the first state to make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to get married, even with parental consent.
As of 2018, only four states completely ban underage marriages, including Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. There are 25 states that have no minimum age requirement for marriage.
In most of the remaining states, parental consent allows for underage marriage and some loopholes even prevent older partners from statutory rape or child sexual abuse charges.
The child in the marriage cannot take legal action or file for divorce until he/she turns 18 years old.
Before new Kentucky legislation was recently passed, marriage bureau clerks could not even prevent underage marriage if the child did not want to get married.
Legislation pertaining to child marriages faces opposition in many state governments.
A 2017 California bill proposed setting the minimum marriage age at 18 but received criticism from lawmakers and groups such as the state’s American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU explained that the proposed bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause.”
Other groups including Planned Parenthood and The National Center for Youth Law agreed.
To date, there is limited information pertaining to child marriages in the U.S., and there is no publicly available government data, leaving hundreds of thousands of children vulnerable to potentially exploitative situations.