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Ending Child Marriage Everywhere—Including in the West

US and European Countries Allow Too Many Children to Marry

Did you know that a 14-year-old child can legally marry in New York State?

Ending child marriage is urgent, because it is deeply harmful to children, wherever they live. Married children often drop out of school, and are locked in poverty as a result. Married girls often become pregnant soon, and early pregnancy involves serious health risks for pregnant girls and their babies. Girls who marry earlier are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who marry as adults. Married girls often face extra barriers in escaping an abusive or unhappy marriage, and accessing shelter and legal assistance.

One of a group of activists in wedding dresses, protesting in support of a bill to end child marriage in New Jersey United States, July 2016. © 2016 Susan Landmann

These facts are true as well for the United States and other western countries, where child marriage is less visible than in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Most European countries and US states set 18 as a minimum age for marriage, but many have exceptions permitting marriage at earlier ages with the consent of parents or permission from a judge. Under these exceptions, the age at which a child can marry falls, for example to 16 in Austria, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, and the UK, to name only a few. In some US states and European countries there is no minimum age below which a judge cannot permit a marriage.

In New York, between 2000 and 2010, 3,853 children under 18 married, with permission from parents, judges, or both. In the vast majority of cases, it was girls marrying adult men. In 2014, 3 percent of Serbian women age 20 to 24 reported that they married before age 18.

This should stop. Some frameworks are already in place. Governments – including the US – have recently committed to the United Nations sustainable development goals, which include a commitment that by 2030, every country will “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage.”

This is the final week of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Because of its devastating effect on girls, child marriage is considered gender-based violence and it too often leads to violence in the home. Western government should do their part to end child marriage everywhere.

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