“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Toni Morrison, Beloved

We live in a time where women are more liberated than ever, but have we truly claimed ownership of that freed self? Are we truly free or are we just benefitting from the freedom that our mothers gave us? While our sisters stood in solidarity, are we now watching our daughters get tied down in shackles, entering marriages when their bodies can barely take the burden of bearing children? Why are we standing back and allowing issues like child and forced marriage to exist worldwide? 

Historically, we have witnessed slow progress in mobilizing legislation that would better protect women. “Bold doctrinal law reform even in an area like rape, one of the earliest sites of feminist intervention, has however become enmeshed in the intractable stickiness of patriarchal social norms, which are hard to displace.”[1] It seems that it has been an ongoing challenge to get legislators to pass laws or put measures into place which would better protect women. Are we now facing the same issues when it comes to protecting our girls?

“The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)…contains a provision calling for the abolition of traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”[2] Furthermore this treaty recognizes a minor to be any child below the age of 18[3], and prohibits State parties from permitting or giving validity to a marriage between persons who have not attained their majority.[4]

UNICEF goes on to state that child marriage “is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected. Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.”[5] It is reported by Girls not Brides[6] that “each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18.”[7]

This is a practice which is globally condemned and certainly frowned upon by the United States of America (USA). In concerted efforts to curtail the practice, the USA is active in delivering education programs in the developing world, and even prides itself on being one of the champions in delivering financial aid abroad.[8]

Ironically, however, it allows the problem to subsist within many of its own states.

Child and forced marriage in the USA is being explored as an issue as statistics suggest that 200,000 children under the age of 18 were married between the years 2000 and 2015 in America.[9] It seems that this region may be a blind spot in the global discussion. The legal framework in the USA is a messy quagmire, which not only does not protect girls, but has the potential to make them vulnerable to child and forced marriage.

This begs two questions: why is the issue not being taken seriously enough at home, and why is the USA not taking adequate steps to protect young girls within its own country?

Media perception would conjure up the image of a small girl, head covered, with brown skin as the typical child of a forced marriage. With that image in mind, we might wonder whether one explanation for the inadequate government response on a domestic level is that child and forced marriage in the USA is associated with certain cultural or religious groups which do not fit the foregoing stereotype. Instead of placing the safety of the child at the fore and treating the issue as one of child protection, the response has been to try and ban or criminalize the practice and label it as human trafficking[10] or prostitution.[11] However, it is suggested that a more adequate response would be a measured one which takes into account the needs of the victims; focused on preventing the harmful practice and protecting those who have already been subjected to a child and forced marriage.

Although there is no data available to demonstrate a statistical correlation between race, religion and child and forced marriage, it is difficult to deny that there is at least a perception that child marriage is a foreign problem. This was highlighted by Palmer in 1938, when she pointed to the fact that child marriage should not be an issue in the USA but a problem in less educated countries like India.[12] Notably India does in fact have stricter laws than the USA when it comes to the issue of child marriage.[13]

These stereotypes also seem to be fueled by the media. A Google search was conducted in April 2018 of “child marriage in the USA”.[14] The results displayed images of brown skinned children, or children who appeared to be Muslim, in child marriage related stories even if the story itself was about America.

A shift in media perception appeared following Coby Persin’s social experiment on YouTube in 2016. Although the initial images were of Muslim/Hindu looking brown skinned girls, the subsequent images included images of a young white girl and an older white man. Although there is no overt evidence of a shift in perception, the fact that the video of the young white girl had over 2 million views, suggests that it had a wide reach. A single video has the potential to influence the perceptions of at least 2 million viewers.

The other factor which must also be considered is that of religion and whether the practice of child and forced marriage would be deemed as a religious right in Muslim, Christian or Jewish communities. If it is the case that Islam, Judaism or Christianity facilitate the practice of child and forced marriage, then there is a potential argument that child and forced marriages are a religious right in the relevant communities. Tampering with this practice risks invoking the First Amendment, which protects the right to freedom of religion.[15] Therefore this requires a closer look to see whether any of these faiths facilitate the practice of child marriage and if so, whether there is any religious infringement which would prevent raising the age of marriage to 18 in the USA. It appears that Islam[16] and Christianity[17] share puberty as the baseline for the age of marriage for girls and Judaism indicates the age of 12.[18] The position remains unchanged in the respective religious books of the three faiths.

In should be noted however that in countries where there are Muslim, Christian or Jewish majorities the states are willing to engage in discussions about the age of marriage. Therefore the wider global context should be considered if religion is used as a reason in the US to facilitate the practice of child marriage, and arguably the position should not be treated as an absolute religious right. It is suggested that professionals in the US should not hesitate to intervene if the issue arises and they are required to protect young girls. Child marriage should not be dismissed as a religious issue, but professionals should be willing to have some form of dialogue or discussion..

In conclusion race and religion have a place in the discussion on child and forced marriage in America. But it is difficult to conclude that race or religions are the motivating factors behind the inadequate legal measures which exist to protect victims of child and forced marriage. It is argued that the issue should be treated like any other child protection issue and therefore the focus should be on the efficiency of the current legislative framework. The response should be focused on the protection of the victim and prevention of child and forced marriage.

[1]  Prabha Kotiswaran, Feminist Approaches to Criminal Law, Oxford University Press, 2015, at 1

[2]  Extract quoted from: Unite for Children, Child Marriage and the Law Legislative Reform Initiative Paper Series, UNICEF, Jan 2008, at 2, available at: https://www.unicef.org/policyanalysis/files/Child_Marriage_and_the_Law(1).pdf; also refers to Article 24(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989.

[3]  Article 1, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989.

[4]  Supra note 2: also refers to Article 16(2) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

[5]  Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse: child marriage, UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58008.html (last updated March 5, 2018)

[6]  “Girls not Bride” is a global partnership of more than 900 civil society organizations from over 95 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Members are based throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. (https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/about-girls-not-brides/)

[7]  United States, GIRLS NOT BRIDES, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/united-states/ (last visited April 21, 2018)

[8]  The Fight Against Child Marriage, U.S. DEP’T OF STATE’S OFFICIAL BLOG (Feb. 7, 2011), http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/ site/entry/fight_against_child_marriage. (original link no longer works) cited by Julia Alanen, Too Young To Tie The Knot, The Family Law Reporter, 40 FLR 1620, at 5

[9]  Anjali Tsui et al, Child Marriage in America By the Numbers, FRONTLINE, July 16, 2017, available at http://apps.frontline.org/child-marriage-by-the-numbers/.

[10]  Maryland, MD Code, § 11-303 (2013)

[11]  District of Colombia, DC. Code § 22-2705 (2014)

[12] Supra note at 12 at 50

[13]  See discussion above at 4.1: Steps taken by India to try to reduce and to eventually eliminate child marriage at 29

[14] The google search was conducted on April 28 , 2018, the following terms were used in the search engine “child marriage in America 2016”. 2016 was used as the year of search, as this was the year which Virginia raised its legal age of marriage and therefore the aim of the search was to find the images which were used near the time when  legislation change started to mobilize in America. (The four images which are referred to appear in the frame of the first 25 images in the search.)

[15]  U.S. Const. amend. I.

[16]  The Quran, (4:6) Surah Nisa, translation available at: http://quranx.com/Tafsirs/4.6

[17]  Ezekiel 31:18 -8, translation and commentary by can be found at: https://discover-the-truth.com /2014/07/01/minimum-age-for-marriage-in-the-bible/

[18]  Issues in Jewish Ethics: Marriage, a Jewish Virtual Library, 1998 – 2018, available at:http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/marriage-in-judaism (Last visited May 3rd, 2018)

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