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Child Marriage in Massachusetts: A Tale of Cages and Chains
15 years old. That is how old my aunt was when she sacrificed herself to child marriage, forever chained to a man in his mid-20s. I blamed the disgust I felt on time and tradition, thinking that my grandparents did not know any better. I blamed the sadness I felt on the ingrained sexism in India, the idea that my aunt was a girl and somehow destined to burden the family. Uncontrolled gender inequality has coerced girls like her to marry early, with the noble reason of custom masking misogyny. Girls who have children out of wedlock may see marriage as a temporary fix to their problem, even if that means they must marry a monster. Uneducated girls may see child marriage as liberation from a lifetime of solitary existence, but instead these misguided fantasies turn into chains of early motherhood, abuse, and trauma. 12 years is only 4,380 days. 12 year-old girls have barely lived 15% of their life, so how can they promise to bind themselves to another for the remaining 85%? Young girls are not fit to deliver children, as they are only children themselves. Aside from the stresses of motherhood, most child brides cannot pursue higher education and obtain a stable salary, making them more dependent on their husbands. Uneducated girls, especially from 15 to 19 years old, are at a higher risk of domestic violence and abuse than educated women (“What Are the Long Term Impacts of Child Marriage? Your Questions Answered”). I know that if I were born in India today, I would be boxed, packaged, and shipped off to a man by the time I was 21. However, I did not know that even if I was born in a progressive nation like America, I could legally be married as a child. In fact, a newborn baby could be married in Massachusetts if given parental and judicial consent. Massachusetts, like many states, has loopholes in its legislation that allow for adolescents to make the lifelong commitment of marriage. Outdated legislation allows females younger than 18 to be forced into marriage by societal norms, parental pressure, and financial circumstances. To fix the immoral Massachusetts legislation regarding child marriage, we must attack this issue through a synergy of legal and educational reforms instead of the passive method of protest that has failed so many young brides.
Despite changes forced upon the legislation, Massachusetts has encouraged the obstinate problem of child marriage through its general marriage laws. According to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 7, § 24, and § 25, anyone in Massachusetts can legally marry below the age of 18 if given parental and judicial consent. (These laws are not associated with a year of enactment because they have not been amended recently.) Although the law does not differentiate between genders, the issue is inherently misogynistic: 87% of minors married in America from 2000 to 2015 were females (Hamilton). Sadly, most of these girls were “marrying adult men,” a practice that is widely recognized as immoral and revolting, yet legal (“End Child Marriage In Massachusetts”). Parton v. Hervey (1854) validated juvenile marriage for females above 12, which was the age of consent based on English common law (Odem 13). The low age of consent sparked civil unrest as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union drafted a petition to raise the age of consent and received support from other suffragist groups (Odem 16). Therefore, by 1920, the age of consent in Massachusetts was raised to 16, so any sexual intercourse between an underage girl and an adult is considered child rape (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 23; Odem 14). If this is the case for unmarried girls, why are brides under 16 allowed to have sexual intercourse? Is this not child rape? People should start asking these questions to expose the immorality of this law.
Next, even though Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 7 requires child marriage to be validated by a judge and a guardian, these barriers are almost nonexistent. Some parents neglect their child, allowing them to make damaging decisions that lead to child marriage. On the other hand, poor parents could pressure girls to marry early, prioritizing her present financial situation over her future. Shockingly, despite the parental consent requirement, Parton v. Hervey (1854) concluded that marriages conducted without parental approval are still valid if the bride is above 12, making the clause obsolete in some instances. The other prerequisite for child marriage is judicial consent, although most brides bypass this control as well. From 2010 and 2014, 92% of child marriages were approved by judges, showing that judges cannot be expected to protect minors from this egregious act (Morrison). Instead of trying to confirm if the marriage is truthful or forced, judges simply abide by the law verbatim, handing out marriage licenses without second thought after viewing the couple once or twice. The obvious flaws in Massachusetts legislation permit the continuation of the sexist, immoral practice of child marriage despite the requirement of parental and/or judicial consent.
We must realize the urgency of this issue. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham,” “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right” (King). Although he wrote in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, his words are relevant to the topic of child marriage because they underscore the fragility and limitations of time while reinforcing our obligation to be actively involved in change instead of passively allow for outdated traditions to persist. King underscored the exigence for change in the face of immoral laws and ideals. We need to grapple with the injustice that has set its roots in legislation and remove this immoral and unjust law as it blooms during this time of crisis. The risk factors associated with child marriage are overflowing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the negative ramifications of the shutdown are projected to target girls in third world countries, the crisis has also increased to the number of girls susceptible to child marriage in the U.S. Currently, young girls are more vulnerable to inequality, insecurity, low-quality education, and sexual exploitation, increasing their likelihood of marriage to alleviate financial concerns or cover up a pregnancy (Affoum and Recavarren). According to the United Nations Population Fund, Johns Hopkins University, and Victoria University, over “13 million girls” worldwide will be bound to child marriage from 2020 to 2030 as a result of repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic if we do not act immediately (Affoum and Recavarren). To enact change, we can follow the steps of resistance outlined by Martin Luther King Jr.: “collection of… facts; negotiation... self-purification; and direct action” (King). First, the lack of data about child marriage allows for people to fall into the appeal to ignorance fallacy; groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, the National Center for Youth Law, and lawmakers simply state that the lack of data supports the insignificance of the problem (Clark). More surveys must be conducted nationally to confirm the presence of child marriage and override these assumptions. Additionally, even though a majority is not suffering from child marriage in Massachusetts, some girls are manipulated, exploited, and disadvantaged. Instead of ignoring the minority, we must stand up for human dignity and morality. This is still an important issue, even if it is not as prevalent in the U.S. as it is in developing nations. Similarly, King stood up for mistreated African Americans unlike others who became “insensitive to the problems” or “complacen[t]” despite being aware of the serious racism in their community (King). Similarly, we cannot let the screams of child brides become background noise. The existence of this intolerable issue in Massachusetts has been proven, as we know that 1,200 girls got married here from 2000 to 2016 (“End Child Marriage In Massachusetts”). Since the necessity for change has been established, the next step is negotiation, a step lawmakers have been stuck in since 2017.
The current negotiations trying to stop child marriage in Massachusetts are ineffective and expose the ignorance of the general public. Two bills have been proposed to Massachusetts legislature in 2021: Bill HD.718 (to the House of Representatives) and Bill SD.292 (to the Senate) which ban child marriage in Massachusetts with no exceptions by striking out Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 7. Today, the Massachusetts Senate, House of Representatives, and governor need to approve of HD.718/SD.292 to nullify all marriages with minors. Similar bills have been proposed in 2017 and 2019 before they were buried beneath “more important” bills on the agenda such as those for sustainable infrastructure and educational equity. For example, in 2019, Bill S.2294 passed unanimously in the Massachusetts Senate in response to a protest by the child bride advocacy group, Unchained at Last (Schoenberg). However, this bill died after the end of the legislative session, pushing child brides one step forward, two steps back (“About Child Marriage”). Perhaps the reason the Massachusetts House of Representatives did not pass the corresponding bill, H.1478, was because of apathy and ignorance about the current situation. People may have assumed the issue was resolved once the bill passed in the Senate, making child marriage fall on the legislative agenda. Lawmakers are burying not only these failed bills, but also the future of these children.
Furthermore, some hinder progress on the legal front because they support the current legislation. Many believe the ruse that current child welfare laws are enough to protect women from the exploitative characteristics of child marriage. They turn a blind eye to the fact that welfare laws are merely a temporary stitch on the gaping wound of child marriage. Sadly even “women’s rights groups” and the “ACLU” are opposed to the reformation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 7, because they mistakenly believe that “banning legal marriage” would push young women “further from… social services” (Tsui). However, members of these civil rights and women’s rights groups are falling victim to the red herring logical fallacy by introducing the concept of government-funded social services which is a totally separate issue. Their argument uses hasty generalization to assume that the number of women who have access to social services is an accurate predictor of the effectiveness of an age floor. Instead, these groups should use a more holistic approach that considers those who are no longer in need of social services because they have escaped this brutality. On the other hand, libertarians and those against abortion strongly deter such reformation because they believe girls who are impregnated but unable to marry would be forced to abort their children (Tsui). Despite this concern, banning child marriage is not the only option to support young girls who are pregnant. The false dilemma created by this argument makes it seem like the child marriage laws are the only way to protect these girls even though other legal and preventative measures exist to address the issue. Other proponents of child marriage laws ignore brides under the age of consent. Terry was married at 14 when she became pregnant after being sexually abused by a 28 year-old brute (“Terry’s Story”). Even though she was under the age of consent, she experienced child rape and violence almost daily. She was old enough to get married but “too young to drive, get a job, rent an apartment, or file for a divorce,” making her powerless in her own life (“Terry’s Story”). We must save girls like Terry from being wiped out by this plague of ignorance. Holistically, the failure to reform the deplorable and antiquated Massachusetts legislation emphasizes the shortcomings of this slow, passive form of protest and exposes the lack of widespread knowledge about the severity of the situation.
Since child marriage is shoved behind other issues during state legislative sessions, we must actively combat child marriage by reaching a broader audience. Since the statewide approach has failed miserably to address the problem, we must attack this issue at the national level. The U.S. must finally ratify these international United Nations (UN) treaties which prohibit child marriage in most countries: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (Hamilton). President Carter signed CEDAW on July 17, 1980 and President Clinton signed CRC on February 16, 1995 but these conventions have yet to be ratified (“United Nations Treaty Collection”). CEDAW was voted out of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1994 and 2002 because Congress did not want to take decisive action to deal with abortion and similar controversial matters addressed in the convention (“United States Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties”). The last legal action associated with CEDAW was when it was sent for interagency review in the Department of Justice to be returned to the Foreign Relations Committee and presented to the Senate in 2009 (“United States Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties”). After that, the U.S. is an international failure because Congress has not ratified the CRC to support the rights of children. Prior to 2005, the U.S. was hesitant about signing the treaty because Congress did not want to ban the death penalty for people who committed crimes as minors. However, the Roper vs. Simmons (2005) deemed the execution of minors unconstitutional. Despite this new arrangement, there was no progress with the CRC in the Senate according to Human Rights Watch (“United States Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties”). Regrettably, the U.S. is the only country in the “Western hemisphere” and the only “industrialized democracy” that has not adopted these conventions (Hamilton). Since 2009, there has been little explanation as to why these conventions have not been reintroduced to Congress. This could be due to the lack of awareness about these conventions or because women and child rights have been pushed farther down the national agenda. Now in 2021, Congress must be forced to ratify the CEDAW and CRC through repetitive lobbying, so women and children are given the civil rights, protection, and equality they deserve. The child brides who are subject to unimaginable physical abuse cannot wait. They are assaulted today and need a solution today, not one that might pass in a couple years once their husbands have drained their self-esteem and body positivity. Ratifying CEDAW and CRC without exceptions would cut off legal loopholes allowing for child marriage and restore respect to the hundreds of girl brides across the nation, removing the obstacle of state autonomy on the topic of child marriage.
In addition to forcing national legislation and raising awareness, we should use direct action by focusing on a major risk factor for child marriage: lack of education. To circumvent the cycle of poverty and child marriage, young women should be educated so they can gain an economic footing and increase their independence in the future. According to Save the Children (an organization that provides humanitarian aid for children and is supported by the UN), about “51 million child marriages” could be prevented by 2030 if more educational services are implemented globally (“Working together to end child marriage”). To save the 51 million girls in danger of abuse after child marriage, we can encourage secondary education, especially in poor communities. Since schools are funded through property taxes, poorer areas inherently have lower quality education. Colleges, universities, and high-schools in low-income areas should be subsidized to extend high-quality education to girls in danger of falling down the cliff of child marriage. Furthermore, scholarships should be offered to lower-income families so they can make educated decisions about their future. To attract teachers to these areas, legislation should be passed to provide them with monetary incentives. Fundraisers, governmental support, and non-profit organizations would raise the money needed to continue these initiatives.
Finally, we must make health care and mentoring more accessible to young girls so they can lead a healthier life. In many child marriages, the young bride is usually left helpless, mistreated, and unable to escape her cage of silent agony. Due to the apparent imbalance of power in child marriages, many of girls have earlier and frequent pregnancies. With more knowledge about contraceptives and child prevention, counselors can prevent children from being forcibly married because on unplanned pregnancies and raise awareness about the dangers of child marriage. Counselors could help brides by holding therapeutic sessions and calling the authorities if the situation intensifies. Additionally, young brides are 23% more likely to contract diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV (“Child Marriage - Devastating Consequences”).Without stable, direct measures against child marriage, we fail to save child brides who have a 50% higher chance of facing physical or sexual violence from their husband (“Child Marriage and Domestic Violence”). We should learn from the “AU Campaign to End Child marriage in Africa” which established sexual, reproductive, and general health services for girls so they can be properly cared for after premature motherhood (“Working together to end child marriage”). Additionally, traumatic experiences can leave long-lasting psychological effects on child brides. These girls wake up in the middle of the night frightened from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, bipolar, and depression. (“What Are the Long Term Impacts of Child Marriage? Your Questions Answered”). Tammy Monteiro, a resident of Massachusetts, fell in love with a 24-year-old male when she was 15 and married at 16 (Selby). After running away years later, she describes her marriage as depressing, abusive, and oppressive (Selby). Mentoring facilities should be established to help child brides escape from such abusive households, help them practice good mental health, and build confidence. Currently, the government has policies in place to fund women’s health clinics such as Title X Planned Parenthood which is provided “$286.5 million” annually, showing that the government has the capacity to fund similar facilities (“Title X Family Planning Program”). The appalling terms of child marriage force young girls to risk their physical well-being and sanity, making it necessary to establish health and counseling resources for brides to rely on.
These proposed solutions work cohesively to attack the issue of child marriage because the scope of problem should not be artificially limited at the state level. King breaks down the barrier between levels of organization when he states, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states” (King). Similarly, we cannot view child marriage as just a Massachusetts problem. Every year we wait, about 70,000 girls are dying from “pregnancy and childbirth” related complications and suffering from psychological disorders every year (“Taking Action to Address Child Marriage: The Role of Different Sectors”). It is important to address the issue on multiple avenues to attack the causes and consequences of child marriage. King reiterates the importance of empathy when he says, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (King). Those child brides need our help. Instead of being passive, we should have the courage and understanding that we can challenge the status quo. In order to create tension, we must contact representatives and convince them to support the stalled local bills and UN treaties. We should encourage judges to stop child marriages even with parental consent because this civil disobedience is necessary to create change. By encouraging the government to finally make this immoral practice illegal, we can finally give young females the childhood and future they deserve.
The ugly truth of child marriage has been hidden away, allowing minors to slip through loopholes in legislation, loopholes that are present in 134 countries around the world (Affoum and Recavarren). Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems leading to child marriage. It is time for change. Young brides in Pennsylvania and Minnesota have found their voice when these states outlawed all exceptions to child marriage in May of 2020 (Sasse). Young brides in nations that ratified the CEDAW and CRC have found their voice. We can give Tammy the chance to pursue education and care for her children as a single mom. We can share Terry’s pain by providing counseling services for abuse victims. We can save one girl at a time until we remove instances of child marriage nationally, and then globally. So, Massachusetts, will you continue to chain young girls to a future that they do not deserve? Or will you stand up for the thousands of girls around the U.S., lead by example, and banish the sexist and revolting and immoral practice of child marriage? Young girls have waited long enough.
“About Child Marriage.” Unchained at Last, 2017, unchainedatlast.org/laws-to-end-child-marriage/.
Affoum and Recavarren. “Child marriage: the unspoken consequence of COVID-19.” World Bank Blogs, 9 Oct. 2020, blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/child-marriage-unspoken-consequence-covid-19.
Baynes, Chris. “More than 200,000 children married in US over the last 15 years.” Independent, 28 Aug. 2018, independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/200-000-children-married-us-15-years-child-marriage-child-brides-new-jersey-chris-christie-a7830266.html.
“Child Marriage and Domestic Violence.” International Center for Research on Women, 2006, icrw.org/files/images/Child-Marriage-Fact-Sheet-Domestic-Violence.pdf.
“Child Marriage - Devastating Consequences.” Unchained at Last, 2017, unchainedatlast.org/child-marriage-devastating-consequences/
Clark, Dartunorro. “End child marriage in the U.S.? You might be surprised at who's opposed.” NBC, 8 Sept. 2019, nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/end-child-marriage-u-s-you-might-be-surprised-who-n1050471.
“End Child Marriage In Massachusetts.” Human Rights Watch, 27 May 2020, hrw.org/EndChildMarriage#.
Hamilton, Marci A. “2020 report on child marriage in the United States: A national overview of child marriage data and law.” CHILD USA, 8 May 2020, childusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2020-Report-on-Child-Marriage-in-the-US.pdf.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Harper San Francisco, 1963.
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 7.
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 24.
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207, § 25.
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 23.
Morrison, Jim. “Advocates raise concerns about child marriage.” Boston Globe, 11 Aug. 2016, bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/08/10/advocates-raise-concerns-about-child-marriage/sx4TQNbXp4gimy502yWB4L/story.html.
Odem, Mary E. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Parton v. Hervey, 1 Gray 119 (Mass. 1854).
Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
Sasse, Ryan. “Pennsylvania and Minnesota Outlaw Child Marriage With No Exceptions.” UNICEF USA, 15 May 2020, unicefusa.org/stories/pennsylvania-and-minnesota-outlaw-child-marriage-no-exceptions/37319.
Schoenberg, Shira. “Massachusetts Senate Passes Bill to Ban Child Marriage.” MassLive, 25 Jul. 2019, masslive.com/news/2019/07/massachusetts-senate-passes-bill-to-ban-child-marriage.html.
Selby, Daniele. “'I Was Not His Equal Partner': What It's Like to Be a Child Bride in Massachusetts.” Global Citizen, 6 Sept. 2019, globalcitizen.org/en/content/child-marriage-survivor-tammy-massachusetts/.
“Taking Action to Address Child Marriage: The Role of Different Sectors.” Girls not Brides, 2013, girlsnotbrides.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/1.-Addressing-child-marriage-Health.pdf.
“Title X Family Planning Program.” Congressional Research Service, 28 Oct. 2020, crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10051#:~:text=What%20Is%20the%20Federal%20Funding,they%20were%20funded%20in%20P.L.
Tsui, Anjali. “In Fight Over Child Marriage Laws, States Resist Calls for a Total Ban.” PBS, 6 July 2017, pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/in-fight-over-child-marriage-laws-states-resist-calls-for-a-total-ban/.
“United Nations Treaty Collection.” United Nations, 2021, treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=IV-11&chapter=4&lang=en.
“United States Ratification of International Human Rights Treaties.” Human Rights Watch, 24 July 2009, hrw.org/news/2009/07/24/united-states-ratification-international-human-rights-treaties#.
“What Are the Long Term Impacts of Child Marriage? Your Questions Answered.” Equality Now, 17 May 2019, equalitynow.org/long_term_impacts_child_marriage#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20International%20Council,older%20and%20more%20educated%20women.
“Working together to end child marriage.” Save the Children Fund, 2018, reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Working%20together%20to%20end%20child%20marriage%207th%20pp.pdf.