Why is it so hard to end child marriage in America?
In 1762, North Carolina’s colonial governor, Arthur Dobbs, married his second wife, 15-year-old Justina Davis. He was 73. It’s easy to feel some combination of revulsion for Mr. Dobbs, pity for Ms. Davis or, likely, a sense of relief that times have changed.
Except they haven’t. Almost 260 years later, North Carolina still allows pregnant and parenting children to marry as young as 14 with a court order, sometimes in direct opposition to a state statutory rape law, which criminalizes sex with a person age 15 or under, with few exceptions.
The state’s House of Representatives is considering a bill, which would increase the minimum age of marriage to 16 and cap age gaps with 16- or 17-year-old spouses at four years. The bill that was originally introduced would have set the marriage age at 18, with no exceptions, but the process of getting even this far has been fraught and revealed surprising opposition.
That North Carolina, my home state, is tied with Alaska for the nation’s lowest legal age of marriage (though there are some states that fail to specify age floors in law, where even younger children can marry) comes as a shock to most North Carolinians. We often think of child marriage as a problem that’s over there — something affecting other countries — or long ago — between people of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
Indeed, when I first spoke to North Carolinian leaders and advocates of women and children’s rights in 2018 about the prospect of studying rates of child marriage in the state, many were skeptical as to why. Surely this was just an old law on the books?
This sense of exceptionalism has left this issue understudied. In a 2017 investigation, PBS’s “Frontline” could not access data from six states — mine included — on how often child marriage occurs or among whom.
Last year, my organization, the International Center for Research on Women, compiled the first-ever comprehensive child-marriage estimates for North Carolina and found that thousands of adults have been granted licenses to marry children in the state. This research was our first investigation of child marriage in the United States, after over a decade of work on this issue around the world, where approximately 12 million girls marry below the age of 18 each year.
Decades ago, my organization documented child marriage trends and solutions. But we were late to study the issue in the United States. I spearheaded this research partly out of a desire to help debunk the myths that child marriage doesn’t happen here and that if it does, girls are better off married if pregnant or parenting. They are not.
Our research found that between 2000 and 2019, at least 3,949 marriage license applications involving 4,218 minors were submitted in 50 of the state’s 100 counties that participated in our analysis. Presuming marriages involving minors occurred at similar rates in the remaining 50 counties and extrapolating figures for those counties according to population, we calculated that nearly 10,000 minors were involved in marriage licenses submitted statewide. We found that this would put North Carolina among the five states with the most child marriages. (This is a conservative estimate, as we struck many records that didn’t have complete information.)
Worse, North Carolina seems to be attracting child marriage tourism as Kentucky and other nearby states improve their laws. “We’re becoming a sanctuary state for statutory rape,” a county official, Drew Reisinger, told me after refusing to grant a marriage license to a Kentucky couple who could not get one in their home state. The man was 49; the girl, 17.
I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, not far from Mr. Reisinger’s office. I remember classmates in my hometown getting pregnant, marrying and dropping out of school as early as middle school, never to return to class. In high school, I was a maid of honor in a wedding that the bride later described as the worst day of her life.
She’s not alone: Our national review of research comparing different health, economic, educational and violence outcomes for child brides found that marriage is not protective for girls, even single mothers. Our synthesis also showed that child marriages are more likely to result in divorce. Married girls are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and much less likely to finish college. Our review found that rates of domestic violence, poverty, early pregnancy and the likelihood of negative physical and mental health outcomes also increase. Further, 57 percent of the marriage applications we collected involving children under 16 showed age differences that would have amounted to a felony under the state’s statutory rape laws.
With such a bleak picture, why haven’t lawmakers taken action sooner? Carrie Hagan Stewart, a daughter of the late Senator Kay Hagan, told me that she recalled when her mother was a state legislator working in 2001 to raise the minimum marriage age, which at that time was set at 12. Without proof that the problem existed, it was an uphill battle to convince the largely male General Assembly that change was needed, and the minimum was raised only to 14. Carrie herself was 14 at the time.
Twenty years later, with data in hand, there was hope that the state’s leaders could rally to finish the job they started. After our research was published, we were pleased to see the General Assembly introduce bipartisan legislation in February to raise the age of marriage to 18, eliminating legal exceptions for pregnancy and parental consent, in line with the evidence and our recommendations. Passing that legislation would have recast North Carolina as a national leader in the fight to end child marriage, as only five states have done to date.
Yet at least one of the bill’s sponsors in the State Senate supported an amendment in committee that would have brought the minimum age back down to 14. It was legislators, not organized opposition, who were the primary obstacle, clinging to dangerous and unsubstantiated views on underage marriage.
Outcry was swift — including from the press, an attorney who has worked with minors seeking to marry in the state, advocates and local officials. After intense bipartisan negotiations, the bill was amended yet again to raise the age floor for marriage to 16, and that version of the bill passed without opposition in the Senate.
While this version still falls short of the age of 18 standard that was initially proposed — a deeply disappointing development that leaves children at risk — I remain hopeful. Until recently, New York law permitted marriage as young as 14, and the first successful legislative effort to address this was able to increase that only to 17. That effort laid the groundwork for the passage of a bill just a few years later to increase the age of marriage to 18, with no exceptions; the bill is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
It is my hope that North Carolina can take a page from that playbook, inching closer to the goal of eliminating child marriage.
We cannot let another generation go by before we end child marriage in North Carolina and, ultimately, in the nation.
Lyric Thompson is the senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women.