Forced Marriage: Young Girls are Victims When U.S. Laws Defer to Religious Dogma

Forced Marriage In The United States

Forced Marriage In The United States: The Religious Tradition That Ruins the Lives of Young Girls

Most child marriage occurs within the confines of religious tradition, which is why American Atheists has joined the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States

Launched on International Human Rights Day, the coalition is bringing organizations and individuals together for the first time to advocate for the repeal of all religious loopholes and exemptions in federal law, policies, and regulations that enable, or even encourage, child marriage. 

Many of the activists in the coalition are survivors of child marriage, which is defined as marriage before age 18.

The practice is legal in 44 states. In 18 states, there is no minimum age for legal marriage. 

Approximately 248,000 children, some as young as 12, were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. 

Girls who marry as minors are twice as likely to live in poverty and three times more likely than older women to be physically abused by a spouse. Between 70 to 80 percent of these marriages end in divorce. 

The U.S. State Department has called marriage before age 18 a “human rights abuse.” Children can easily be forced to marry before becoming legal adults because they face overwhelming legal and practical barriers if they try to leave home, enter a domestic violence shelter, retain an attorney, or bring legal action. 

In states that allow exemptions from marriage age limits, parental consent requirements do practically nothing to mitigate the risks of forced child marriage. 

In fact, when children are forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents. It goes without saying that there will always be “consent” when there is parental coercion in the first place. 

The practice of forcing marriage on children is particularly common in insular Orthodox religious communities and among Fundamentalist Christians. 

In 2018, leaders of the Family Action Council of Tennessee successfully killed a bill that would have banned child marriage in that state. 

The group’s objection to the law? It would have interfered with a lawsuit they planned to at- tack same-sex marriage rights. But it isn’t just ultra-orthodox religious groups opposing these laws. 

“There was a concern that we would be offending certain cultures within our society,” said New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who, in 2016, introduced an unsuccessful bill to end child marriage in her state. 

“So instead of seeing this as an abuse of young women, [legislators] were seeing this as something we needed to protect for certain cultures.” 

The coalition aims to remove statutory rape exceptions so that perpetrators cannot escape punishment by marrying the child. 

The coalition also aims to have a federal law passed—or at least to have an official standard—which defines marriage under the age of 18 as a human-rights abuse and to ensure that no other federal laws, policies, or regulations permit, encourage, or facilitate child marriage. 

The coalition was co-founded by the non-profit organization Equality Now and Unchained At Last

Equality Now works through public policy channels to create a just world for women and girls. They hold governments responsible for ending legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and inhumane practices like female genital mutilation. 

Unchained At Last, is the only organization in the U.S. dedicated to ending forced and child marriage across the country through direct services and advocacy. 

It provides crucial and often life-saving legal and social services to help individuals resist or escape forced marriages. They lead in pushing for social, policy, and legal changes at both the state and federal levels. 

Unchained At Last was founded by Fraidy Reiss, who was forced into an arranged marriage at 19. 

Lacking any formal education and being trapped in a community where only men could grant a divorce, Reiss defied the wishes of her family and became the first person in her family to go to college at the age of 27. 

After her graduation at the top of her class from Rutgers at the age of 32, her family shunned her and declared her dead. 

She was hired as a reporter with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey and rose to become an investigative journalist and later an investigator at Kroll, Inc., one of the world’s foremost corporate investigation risk consulting firms. 

Reiss escaped the trap of her forced marriage by successfully divorcing her abusive husband and winning full custody of her two children. 

Now she works to ensure that women and girls who unwillingly endure an arranged marriage have the resources they need to escape. 

Since joining the coalition, American Atheists has worked with advocates at Unchained At Last and Equality Now to pass child marriage bans in states with no religious loopholes and exemptions. 

In February 2019, American Atheists submitted testimony in support of a bill that would end child marriage in New Hampshire. 

The law in that state currently sets the marriage age at 18 but allows a dangerous exemption for children as young as 16 to marry if a parent petitions the court for the marriage and a judge approves. 

Since 2000, more than 200 marriage licenses were granted in New Hampshire for children as young as 14. 

All organizations, decision-makers, activists, advocates, survivors, and allies who are committed to ending child marriage in the United States, and who are in agreement with this mission, are invited to join the coalition. 

Go to to learn more.


Pamela Whissel
By Pamela Whissel
Editor-in-Chief, American Atheist Magazine

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