15-year-olds can't vote, join the military, drive a car, or even leave their parent/guardian's care without permission and special circumstances.
So why on God's green earth are some states so insistent that 15-year-olds — and occasionally even younger adolescents — should be allowed to get married?
Idaho made headlines this past week when a bill to ban marriages with minors under 15 years old and continue to require parental permission for marriages involving 16 or 17-year-olds, failed by a margin of 39-28. Idaho has the highest rate of child marriage in the United States, and this bipartisan supported bill was intended to rid Idaho of that nasty statistic.
However, child marriage in our nation extends beyond just Idaho: 17 states have no minimum age to marry, as long as the parent(s) and/or a judge give approval (different states have different specific policies). Only two states have outright banned child marriage: New Jersey and Delaware. According to data compiled by Unchained at Last, the largest organization fighting child marriage in the United States, at least 207,459 minors were married between 2000 and 2015.
Yes, many of these marriages were certainly between willing participants, but this calls into question whether or not a minor is truly capable of making such a large commitment as marriage. 38% of marriages in which one or both members are teenagers end in divorce within five years, and the number rises to 48% for ten years. This statistic ought to be higher though—many times, people married as minors are unable to get a divorce, especially when their family is not in support of it. This is especially true if the marriage is a rushed response to unintended pregnancy, sometimes to attempt to provide stability for the new family, but often motivated by the social stigma of being a young, unwed mother.
Some of these pregnancy cases occur due to sexual abuse, and yet, these girls' families, as well as judges who approve these marriages, see no issue marrying a victim to their rapist.
Additionally, it is important to consider the ages of these marriages involving minors. Only 14% of such marriages were between two minors, while 31% were between a minor and an adult 21 or older. Luckily, only 5% of marriages involved brides aged 15 and under, but the fact that this is still even a legal option is appalling.
In my opinion, if a couple in which one or both individuals are minors, they should have to wait to marry until both are at least 18. Yes, even in cases of pregnancy. I take no issue with people of any age making a verbal commitment to one another—as long as both partners give informed consent. However, as the statistics above illustrate, marriages involving minors are often the product of concerning external factors and result in abuse victims being unable to leave that relationship. The founder of Unchained at Last, Fraidy Reiss, was herself forced into marriage by her family. While she was 19, a legal adult, she had absolutely no voice to protest against her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family's wishes. Many times, girls do not report abuse because they fear their families will face legal consequences or that they will be shunned by their community.
The United States Government has a responsibility to protect these girls and prevent them from getting into these situations in the first place. The judges and clerks who allow these marriages to proceed on the basis of "individual liberty" or the argument that the government has no business interfering with the lives of law-abiding citizens are allowing minors to have their rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—taken away.
Every single legislator in Idaho who voted against the proposed measure (and in favor of marriages involving minors under 15) ought to be ashamed.
Due to their disgraceful actions, hundreds of young girls will continue to be married and unable to escape marriage.
The silver lining of this whole fiasco is that it has brought national attention to this issue and sparked outrage, as it absolutely should. Many people, including myself, did not realize marriage of minor under the age of 15 was legal anywhere, let alone in more than half of US states. It is my hope that soon, we will see the end of child marriage in the United States—point-blank, zero exceptions, once and for all.