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It’s been a funny week. I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan, launching a new Human Rights Watch report I wrote about the lack of progress in girls’ education in Afghanistan. But in between meetings, in the back of a dusty Corolla, stalled at security checkpoints, I’ve been emailing frantically about Florida.

Afghanistan has a serious problem with child marriage.

So does Florida.

In Afghanistan child marriage is associated with girls dropping out of school, sinking into poverty, being at greater risk of domestic violence, and with serious health risks, including death. Child marriage is associated with similar harms in the United States too.

Child marriage law tougher in Afghanistan than Florida

One important difference, though, between Florida and Afghanistan, is that Afghanistan has a tougher law on child marriage than Florida does. In Afghanistan girls can marry at 16, or at 15 with permission from their father or a judge. In Florida, a pregnant girl can marry at any age, with the approval of a judge.

Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on child marriage, interviewing hundreds of married children in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi, Nepal, South Sudan, Tanzania, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch has also advocated for an end to child marriage in other countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Of these countries, only Saudi Arabia and Yemen, like Florida in the case of a pregnant child, have laws that set no age below which children cannot marry.

A group of organisations working to end child marriage in the United States will travel to Tallahassee, Florida next week to ask members of the state legislature to pass a pending law that would set the minimum age of marriage in Florida at 18 with no exceptions.

Sonia Ossorio of NOW-NYC addresses the crowd at a protest against US laws allowing child marriage.  © 2016 Susan Landmann

16,000 children married in Florida

Florida is among the US states with the highest rates of child marriage – between 2011 and 2015, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 married in Florida. But it is far from alone in permitting child marriage. Marriage below the age of 18 is legal in all 50 states, and Florida is one of 25 states in which under some circumstances children of any age can marry. According to 2000 to 2010 data from 38 states, more than 167,000 children married in those states alone during this period.

Child marriage occurs in every region of the world and globally, one out of every four girls marries before age 18, and 15 million girls under 18 marry each year—one every two seconds. The overwhelming majority of married children are girls, most of whom marry spouses who are older than they are—in some cases much older.

Research demonstrates that child marriage is associated with, and in some cases causes, severe harm, wherever married children live. A 2010 study found that girls or young women in the US who married before age 19 were 50 per cent more likely to drop out of high school than their unmarried counterparts, and only 25 per cent as likely to complete college. Girls who marry as early teens, before age 16, in the US are 31 per cent more likely to end up in poverty later in life.

Impact of child marriage

Researchers have found significant associations between child marriage and mental and physical health disorders. Research from other countries shows a correlation between child marriage and domestic violence. Married girls often find it more difficult than married women to escape an abusive or unhappy marriage, and to get services such as shelter and legal assistance.

Child marriage in the US is a crucially important issue because the future of tens of thousands of children in the US is being jeopardised by child marriage. It is also important because this is a key moment in a global effort to end child marriage, and donor countries like the US need to show that they will work to end child marriage not only abroad but at home as well.

Under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which went into effect in January 2016, countries around the world, including the US, agreed to a target of ending all child marriage by 2030. Countries including Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden have recently revised their laws in an effort to reduce child marriage. Many other countries have developed or are developing national action plans for ending child marriage by 2030.

In the US, New York, Texas, and Virginia recently passed laws cracking down on child marriage. If the Florida law passes, it will be the first US state to ban all marriage before age 18.

Girls in Florida, and around the world, need to be kids, not wives.

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