Believe it or not, CASA has had to ask this question before. While, here in the United States, the knee jerk reaction is Yes! YES! and YES!!! there are many factors to consider. The first of which is the law-
Many don’t know this but several states in the continental US allow for child marriages, so long as the participants have parental consent. In the state of Illinois a 16 year old may marry as long as a guardian consents to the union. In other states, such as Arizona and California, there is no minimum age limit so long as the youth has both parental and judicial consent. In some states there is language written in that, should a young lady fall pregnant, she can get married as young as 16 without parental consent or at the age 14 with it. While we would like to think this would never be necessary or applicable, children in grade school have fallen pregnant. One such case came to light in 2006 when William Edward Ronca, then 26 years old, admitted to impregnating a ten year old. The girl went on to deliver a healthy baby via C section in South Carolina. She placed her child up for adoption.
The second thing to consider is consent. Do you feel a child as young as fourteen can consent to being a spouse? Does the law? To quote directly from the New York Times, “Of course, 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.” This article goes on in even more shocking detail as it says, “Nevertheless, the data show that 3,481 children were married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012. Most were age 16 or 17 and married with parental consent, but 163 were between ages 13 and 15, meaning a judge approved their marriages. Shockingly, 91 percent of the children were married to adults, often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory-rape charges, not a marriage license. Based on my own experience working with forced-marriage victims across the United States, I am sure many of these children had to marry against their will. Forced marriage is a widespread but often ignored problem in the United States. A survey by the Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that provides services to immigrant women and girls, identified as many as 3,000 known or suspected forced-marriage cases just between 2009 and 2011, many involving girls under age 18. Tactics used against the victims included threats of ostracism, beatings or death.”
This topic has been in the media lately due to one Vaughn Ohlman, the owner of the website LetThemMarry. Since becoming the focus of media scrutiny over his decision to promote a pay for play “marriage retreat” where fathers could get together to marry off their teenage children, Vaughn has taken down the wording on his website. Before his edits he said this about the optimum age for marriage-
Our position is that, for a woman:
1) The ‘youth’ ready for marriage has breasts. A woman who is to be married is one who has breasts; breasts which signal her readiness for marriage, and breasts who promise enjoyment for her husband. (We believe that ‘breasts’ here stand as a symbol for all forms of full secondary sexual characteristics.)
2) The ‘youth’ ready for marriage is ready to bear children. Unlike modern society Scripture sees the woman as a bearer, nurser, and raiser of children. The ‘young woman’ is the woman whose body is physically ready for these things, physically mature enough to handle them without damage.
3) The ‘youth’ ready for marriage is one who is ready for sexual intercourse sexually and emotionally. Her desire is for her husband, and she is ready to rejoice in him physically.
All three of the above points represent, not a certain exact age, but a level of physical and sexual maturity. Not ‘maturity’ as in ‘been there, done that’, nor even a ‘maturity’ as in ‘have been at this level for a long time’, but a point of arrival. But we are certainly in agreement with the commentators that marriage (in order to be timely and to accomplish its purposes) ought to happen before the age of twenty for almost everyone.
As far as consent goes, Mr. Ohlman also addressed that. He stated, “and so, a lack of consent of the individual concerned is a choice of disobedience, a breach of a vow and of a relationship. God has designed the marriage relationship (in particular that of the virgin daughter marrying the virgin son) to be a relationship initiated by the parents, in particular the fathers, of the young couple.”
What is the harm if both parties want to be married? The harm can be counted as both emotional as well as physical damage. In fact, on the 6th of May a young girl, 13, died do to internal injuries resulting from her recent marriage. The UK’s Daily Mail said in their report, “A medical report from al-Thawra hospital said she suffered a tear to her genitals and severe bleeding.” The girl had been traded to an older man, by agreement of their two families, a practice that, “The Yemeni rights group said the girl was married off in an agreement between two men to marry each other’s sisters to avoid having to pay expensive bride-prices.”
If you are wondering what Child Protection can do, the answer is sadly not much. NPR address this when it says, “Moreover, even if they do reach out, child protective services may not be able to do anything, says Casey Swegman, manager for the Tahirih Justice Center’s Forced Marriage Project. Such services “are set up to respond to harm already done,” she explains, “so if the child has not yet been hit or taken out of school, that can mean an investigation won’t even happen.” Imagine a 15-year-old who’s afraid of being forced into a marriage, having the courage to ask for help “and [is] then told that the system can’t help you,” she says.”
One case of two youths marrying, even after Child Protection became involved, is that of Liset and James. She was 12 when she began to see James romantically. He was sixteen. They told their story to the Chicago Tribune as follows, “According to records at the Texas Department of Health, Liset was one of nearly 60 girls in that state who married in 2002 at the tender age of 14–the minimum age in Texas with parental consent. (A handful of other states sanction extremely early marriages with parental consent: In Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, girls can marry at 14; in New Hampshire it’s 13; in Massachusetts and Kansas, 12.) In 2002, state social workers informed the young couple that they would advocate charges of statutory rape against James when he became a legal adult at 18, family members say. Liset’s mother said Texas child protection officials also threatened to take custody of her other children if she didn’t break off her daughter’s underage relationship. In the face of such harsh law-enforcement action, Liset rushed to the altar. She says she and James had planned to marry anyway.”
Liset, who was 17 when the Tribune last checked in with her said, “I want to go back to school,” echoing a universal desire that social workers hear from child wives around the world. “Maybe then I can become a cosmetologist, or maybe an interior designer.”She hopes to re-enroll in the 9th grade this spring, after giving birth to a new baby. This time it is a boy. He will be named James, after his father.”
So is it child abuse? Our answer, after thoughtfully considering all the parts, remains yes. Children just aren’t ready for marriage. Their brains, which have been noted to be in constant rapid development until the age of 25, have other things which need to be focused on. These things involve education, social growth and friendships, as well as creative endeavors. These things are all curtailed by early marriage.