Child Marriage


As defined by UNICEF (2018), child marriage is any formal or informal union entered by individuals below 18 years. Forced marriage, on the other hand, is union entered by an individual without freely or fully consenting due to coercion, threats or deception or when the individual is incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony. Forced marriages are commonly related to child marriages in that children do not have the capacity to consent and parents’ consent on their behalf making it forced marriage. In the U.S., most of the states do not have a minimum marriage age when statutory exceptions such as judicial or parental consent are obtained (Wulfhorst, 2018). This paper seeks to identify a policy alternative with the principal objective of reducing the number of children below 18 years who are entering marriages in the U.S. The paper is specifically focusing on policies that will address the minimum age for marriage in the U.S.

As argued by Furlow (2018), the U.S. government is in the front line advocating for an end in child marriage, but 48 out of the 50 states in the U.S. have legal exceptions allowing children below the age of 18 years to get married. In most of the states, the minimum age for marriage is 16 years although other states allow younger children to get married with the consent of the parents. These legal exception sonly crate loopholes that enable parents to have their children married at young ages (Furlow, 2018). Only the states of New Jersey and Delaware have so far prohibited child marriage fully. Though other states such as Virginia, Texas, Kentucky and New York have adopted similar rules, they have incorporated some exceptions such as judicial and parental consent. In the state of Massachusetts, girls as young as 12 years and boys as young as 14 years can get married with parental consent. In eleven other states including Mississippi and California, there is no legal minimum age for marriage with parental consent (Furlow, 2018).

A survey by the Frontline organization on the number of children who got married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 revealed that while in 2000 23,582 children got married, the number reduced to 9,247 in 2010. Most of the minors getting married were girls at 87% most of them being 16 and 17 years. Though most of the minors were 17 years, minors as young as 12 years were granted licenses in South Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska and 13 years old granted consent to get married in other 13 states. Most of these marriages were approved by judges and court clerks (Tsui, Nolan & Amico, 2017). While there were married minors, such occurrences were not common. Most of the marriages were between adults and minors with most of the adults being between 18 to 20 years. The minimum consent age in the U.S. varies between 16 and 17, but there are exceptions when it comes to marriage. A review of data from the US Census between 2010 and 2014 by Heymann and Alissa Koski (cited in Furlow, 2018) showed that there were 78,400 married, divorced or separated which is about 0.6% of all 15-17 years old minors.

Heymann emphasized that child marriages are rarely long term unions in that almost a quarter of these marriages are separated or divorced by age 18 years. Child marriage rarely leads to a stable family, and it is estimated that 70% of the child marriages end up in divorce or separation. While some groups are affected more than others, the issues affect all demographic groups. As argued by Tahirih Justice Centre (2017), child marriages contribute to poverty, curtailed education, constrained employment opportunities, diminished physical and mental health and vulnerability to abuses. These findings are in agreement with Noar (2006) who found that child marriages can lead to cervical cancer, death in childbirth, obstetric fistulas, increased poverty and other social, economic and health issues.

Supports of child marriage in the U.S. argue that fully eliminating child marriages would lead to an increase in abortion rates. This is based on the view that if a teen becomes pregnant and fails to get married, the likelihood of aborting increase (Zee, 2018). While it is agreeable that teen pregnancy has become an issue in the U.S. over the last decade with a total of 194,337 babies being born by women aged 15 to 19 in 2017 as reported by CDC (2018), this does not justify the consent to child marriages. The fact that the teen is already pregnant makes it even more compelling to protect her rather than send her to a line of other issues associated with child marriage. Child marriage rarely leads to stable families and so just because of pregnancy, the dream and goals of a minor are shuttered. Pregnant minors ought to be protected and put in the care of an adult to guide them but not married. Marriage for them only aggravate the woes and problems already in existence. While there is documented evidence that child marriages has numerous effects, there is no evidence suggesting that the end of child marriages will increase abortion rates.

Another major argument is that prohibiting child marriages is against some religious traditions and thus would be a form of discrimination. However, the fact that a policy prohibiting child marriage would be targeting specific religions makes it nondiscriminatory. The motivation behind such religious practices is the aspiration to control the sexuality and behavior of children for dowry or for immigration purposes. Allowing such practices to continue infringes on the rights of these children while protecting the rights of their parents. The U.S rights and freedoms do not recognize any right that infringes on the right of another person.  Thus, policies that allow child marriage in the name of protecting religious practices fail to recognize the rights of the children (Reiss, 2017).

Child marriage has long term effects on the life of girls. Whether the marriage takes place in a developing or developed world, child marriages affect the education, health, economic opportunities, increase poverty and increased risk of violence. It is difficult for victims of child marriage to seek help in the U.S in that when children flee home, they are termed as runaways, and the shelters contact their parents. This makes it hard for the child protection services to protect such children more so when parental consent was provided for the marriage to take place. The United States is in the front line advocating for the end of child marriages in other continents such as Africa while the problem is still persistent closer home. This presents the need for a policy that will minimize the number of child marriages by capping the marriage age in the U.S.

Policy alternatives

This section presents the different policy alternatives that can address the issue of child marriages in the U.S by changing the age limits on marriages involving minors. A total of three policy alternatives will be presented and evaluated later in the next section.

Setting marriage age at 18 with no exceptions

A considerable policy alternative to curb the presence of child marriage in the United States is for all states to formulate a policy that requires children to reach 18 years before getting married. The fact that similar policies are in place in New Jersey and Delaware is an indication that such a policy can be passed in the states. Though other states such as Texas, Virginia, New York and Kentucky have also adopted similar policies, they have included exceptions such as judicial and parental consent to the policy. Most of the other states have lower limits on child marriage when involving an adult and even as young as 14 years when involving two people in the same age group. The judicial process of consenting is meant to identify if the minor is of sound mind, mature and ready to get married. However, this process does not prepare the child for marriage rather it just consents to the marriage. Even when such a child is willing to get married or is pregnant, the judicial process does not prepare her psychologically for marriage which is why most child marriages end up in divorce. Again, children do not have the capacity to make an informed decision which begs the question of how the courts determine the maturity level of a minor. Another major problem is that the fact that parents’ consent to the marriage does not indicate that the minor is ready or willing to get married. Parents can easily consent to the marriage especially when the minor is pregnant just to avoid the burden. The fact that child marriage affects minors is the reason why the policy should concentrate on protecting the rights of the minors and not the rights of their parents. By setting marriage age at 18 years with no exceptions, most of the forced child marriages would be avoided.

Set the limit age at 18 years and allow judicial consent for 17 years old after counselling.

Similar to the policy in Texas, Virginia, New York and Kentucky where the legal age of marriage is 18 years but minors as young as 14years can get married with judicial and parental consent, such a policy can be instituted in all states with the exception of judicial consent after counselling for 17 years old only. This would limit the minimum marriage age to 17 years and eliminate parental consent. Again, the court should only assess the minor only after undergoing counselling. The concept of parental guidance is based on the minors doing what they are told by parents and being punished for failure to follow instructions. When presented to a judge for assessment, such a minor can easily agree to marriage due to fear of reprisal by parents. A 14 years old minor is considerably young and under the control of parents.

This alternative proposes that while marriage can be allowed for 17 years old by the courts, such a minor should first undergo counselling. With counselling, the minor will be informed about his/her rights and be healed from the fear of reprisal. If the minor is being forced to get married, the counsellor can identify such instances and generate a report to the court. The goal here is to allow the child to get married when satisfied that such a child is willing to get married and is ready for any consequences. This will drastically reduce cases of forced child marriages where children consent due to fear of parents and then feel complicit to their forced marriages and thus fear to leave. This policy alternative is attainable considering that it observes the rights of the minors and other issues such as religious practices.

Use the current policy

The other alternative is to let the laws remain as they are and allow nature to take its course. Considering that to stats have already set the minimum age at 18 years with no exceptions, there is progress in the fight against child marriage in the U.S. the debate has been ongoing in different states, and several organizations are in the front line fighting for the rights of children. This alternative would leave the decision purely on the state politicians who make laws. It would be hard to estimate how states will progress in the future or how long such progress as pertaining to child marriages would take, but the current progress instils some hope. It is, however, disheartening to note that a lot of work needs to be done. In Idaho, a bill intending to set the minimum marriage age at 16 years was voted down in early 2019 (Sathish, 2019). With such occurrences, the long fight against child marriage eradication has a long way. From a historical point of view, these form of vices similar to slavery and discrimination will ultimately end with time. However, the problem is that the practice can continue for many years and many minors can be affected in the process.


To analyze the best alternative among the above alternative, several criteria’s will be used. As argued by Bardach (2000), the evaluative criteria is not used to evaluate the alternatives directly; rather it is applied to evaluate the projected outcomes of the alternatives. Thus the alternatives will be evaluated based on their outcomes in reducing the number of child marriages.


Effectiveness as criteria will look at the effectiveness of the alternatives in reducing the number of child marriages in the U.S. the goal of the policy is to protect the rights of children and to safeguard them from the numerous effects that come with early marriages. Any feasible policy must be effective in addressing the problem at hand and how a policy alternative addresses the problem interns of outcomes determine its viability. The analysis will determine the number of marriages each alternative can save and determine the based alternative.

Political acceptability

A viable policy must be politically acceptable or not unacceptable. Unacceptability in politics can occur through little support or much opposition. Thus, when many people oppose a policy or very few people support a policy, it is politically unacceptable. This criterion will focus on the support level of the outcomes of each alternative. The higher the support or, the lower the opposition, the higher is the political acceptability.


Any policy must be legal meaning that its outcomes must be legal. The legality of the policy is determined by the legality of its outcomes and not the policy itself. The current laws in different states on child marriage, for example, are legal, but their outcomes are illegal. The international community, as well as the United States, recognise that child marriage is a violation of rights. Thus, the legal status of the different laws that govern marriage in different states are open to legal interpretation. The alternatives will thus be judged by the legality of their outcomes.

Policy Analysis

In the analysis of the different alternatives, secondary data was used. The data was collected from different sources, and though not collected for this specific purposes, it was fit for use.

Number of minor married from the year 2000 to 2015.

age Number Percentage
Below 15 years 1,976 1%
15 years 7,904 4%
16 years 57,306 29%
17 years 130,422 67%
  197,608 100%

Source: Tsui, Nolan & Amico (2017).

Laws governing marriage in states

Child marriage completely illegal 2 states  
Consent required at 17 years 5 states  
Consent required at 16 and below years. 41  
No minimum age for consent 2  

As the data shows, most of the minors get married at the age of 17 years, but there is still a considerable number that gets married at 16 years and below. While only 2 states have completely illegalised child marriage, all other states have exceptions to the laws. Most of the states allow marriage to occur at 16 years and below under certain circumstances and with either parental, judicial consent or both. 2 of the states do not have a minimum age for consent under certain circumstances such as pregnancy.

Setting marriage age at 18 with no exceptions

Under this policy, all the states would have a consensus that marriage between minors below 18 years is not allowed.  Based on up to 2015 data, 197,608 marriages would have been prevented. Even though child marriage has been on the decline, a higher number of children will still get married in the next ten years if measures are not taken. However, this policy would drastically reduce this number to almost zero. Thus, it would be effective in reducing the number of child marriages in the U.S. However, given that 41 of the states have exceptions for special circumstances, eradicating such exceptions may generate opposes for this policy. As it stands currently, only 2 states are in support of this kind of policy and most of the other states have failed to pass a bill on the same. This alternative has less support and much opposition making it politically unacceptable. Legally, the policy is against the violation of child rights the same rights and freedoms protected by the constitution. The fact that all states have a minimum legal age of 18 for marriages without consent makes the outcome of this policy legal. No state would term the protection of child rights as a violation of the law.

Set the limit age at 18 years and allow judicial consent for 17 years old after counselling.

The outcome of this policy is that it would eliminate the number of marriages between minors below 17 years. By 2015, 33% of child marriages were in this age group. Projecting the same statistics in the next five years, this policy would prevent 33% of child marriages from occurring. Again, while most of the marriages occur at 17 years, the inclusion of counselling would reduce this number. Minors not willing to get married would be protected, and only a small number would go through with the process. Thus, the policy would be effective in curbing the vice. However, a considerable number of marriages would still occur. Given that 41 states have exceptions for child marriages in special circumstances, the support for this policy would be higher than the alternative of no exceptions. Supports of parental and judicial consent would support this policy while those advocating for the end to child marriage would oppose the policy. Legally, most of the states allow the marriage of as young as 14 years old minors. The outcome of this law is that a minimized number of child marriages would occur. The current laws already allow a high number of child marriages to occur and thus and limiting the age to 17 years while protecting the right of the children is legal. Most of the states do not have laws that would make this policy illegal except 2 states. Thus, the policy can be termed as legal.

Use the current policy

The current policy as discussed earlier in problem definition is ineffective in curbing the prevalence of child marriage.  The numerous exceptions and circumstances under which minor marriages are allowed has led to the continued practice of the underage marriages. The current policy is thus not effective in curbing the vice. The different exceptions such as parental and judicial consent are misused and used as a way to access a marriage license for minors. The fact that the current policy is in effect in most of the states indicate that it is supported by many states which makes it politically acceptable. Most of the states have failed to pass bills looking to increase the minimum age which is an indication of the current policy being politically acceptable. The outcome of this policy is that it has led to many child marriages resulting in many children facing different difficulties. Though the policy is legal by law, its outcomes are illegal in that it violates the rights of children.


Based on the analysis, the best policy alternative is setting the limit age at 18 years and allow judicial consent for 17 years old after counselling. While it is not as effective as setting marriage age at 18 with no exceptions, it is highly politically acceptable and legal. The fact that most of the states have exceptions to the legal marriage age without consent indicates that including some exceptions would make the policy ore acceptable while at the same time reducing the number of child marriages.  The policy meets the three criteria’s as opposed to the other alternatives which only adhere to two or one criteria. While the policy would generate support from many states, it would also generate opposition from different corners. The policy lies in between the other two alternatives where all involved parties would have to compromise to win. This makes the policy outcomes preferable as compared to the alternatives.




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