Sara Tasneem is a 36-year-old business student at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. But when she was 15, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, her father, who belonged to a religious cult, forced her to marry a man 13 years her senior.
"A person who marries a 15-year-old, there's obviously something wrong," Tasneem, who remained in that relationship for four years before filing for divorce, told the Chronicle. "Putting that label of husband and wife makes something disgusting and not OK seem normal and OK."
A 2017 report from the Tahirih Justice Center shines a grim light on child marriage in the US and how oftentimes state laws fail young people. According to the Center's analysis, more than 200,000 children were married between 2000 and 2015; sadly, most of them were girls who wed men sometimes decades older than them.
"From our experience, when a child is forced into a marriage, the perpetrator is almost always the parents," Unchained At Last founder Fraidy Reiss told the Huffington Post. "But these children are not all coming out of abusive, violent, dysfunctional homes. It's often parents who think they are doing the best thing for their child."
According to the report, most state laws set the minimum age to marry at 18, but these can often be overridden by parental consent, approval from a judge, or even simply a signature from a court clerk. What's more concerning is that 25 states have no laws on the books that indicate an age "floor" for marriage–meaning, a girl who's barely started menstruating could legally become someone's wife if certain exceptions are met.
"For example," the report's authors write, "New Hampshire's laws describe the age of consent to marry as 18 years for both males and females, but then permit judicial approval for males age 14 or older and for females age 13 or older. At least as recently as 2013, a 13-year-old girl was married in New Hampshire. Maryland has a pregnancy exception that applies to children as young as 15, which is younger even than the state's legal age of consent to sex. Since 2000, this exception has enabled the marriages of at least 140 15-year-olds who were pregnant or had already given birth to a child."
The consequences of entering or being forced into a marriage at a young age can be damaging: As the report notes, not only do most of these marriages end in divorce, increasing the minor's likelihood of being stuck in poverty, but child brides are more likely to experience abuse and serious medical issues, such as psychiatric disorders.
One of the biggest problems with allowing a child to marry is that they don't have the same rights as an adult. For example, in many states, if the minor tries to leave a marriage to start fresh, they wouldn't be able to legally enter into an apartment lease. In fact, she may not even be able to file for her own divorce.
The simplest solution to protecting minors from entering marriages they may not be ready for, the report states, is to pass laws that set the marriage age without any exceptions to 18. So far, only Virginia, Texas, and New York have addressed this issue, passing laws that do not allow anyone who is a legal child to get married (though a minor who has been emancipated and given the full rights of an adult can).
"Every state in the country could make that change, and within just a few years we could eliminate the antiquated laws that have permitted child marriage in the US."
"It's easy and cheap to do that—clerks need only check IDs," says Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Justice Center's senior counsel for policy and strategy and author of the report. "Rarely do we get a chance to make such a tremendous difference in the whole trajectory of a girl's life, and in her future family's life, than to make a change in laws that's so simple. Every state in the country could make that change, and within just a few years we could eliminate the antiquated laws that have permitted child marriage in the US."
Critics, however, argue that marriage is a fundamental right, and these instances of coerced marriage are relatively small in number. "For those who suggest these cases are rare," Smoot says, "whether it's one, 100, or 1,000 girls marrying each year in a particular state, it's unconscionable for states to keep lax laws on the books that subject any girl to the acute risk of a forced marriage or other lifelong harm."
And for teenagers who are interested in tying the knot because they actually want to? "We'd say that genuine couples can wait a few months or a year for their 'happily ever after,'" Smoot says. "Their chances at a solid marriage and future only improve if they wait."
She adds: "An at-risk girl needs legislatures to act now to adopt strong laws that keep her from having to face a never-ending nightmare."