Weird History

Child Marriage Is Still Legal In Half Of US States, And This Tragic Underaged Bride Is Proof 

Rachel Souerbry
Updated July 22, 2019 124.7k views 11 items

In 1971, Sherry Johnson, at only 11 years old, was forced to marry the man who forcefully impregnated her. Sherry Johnson' story may be equally tragic and shocking, but she is far from alone in her ordeal.

Child marriage in the US is a tradition as old as the nation itself. As barbaric and antiquated as such a convention may sound, thousands of young girls – and some boys – are forced into marriages by their parents each year. These marriages are often for religious or cultural reasons, to cover up sexual abuse, or some combination of the three, much like in Johnson's case. The majority of these unions are reliant upon vast age differences and are usually between young girls and much-older men.

useAs such a tradition strikes most as highly immoral by our modern standards, what states would allow child marriage? Shockingly, all of them. While some have stricter laws than others, the brutal truth is that, with a parent's permission, children can still get married in every single state in the US – even if they are below the age of sexual consent.

The legacy of underaged marriage leaves in its wake broken childhoods, heartbreaking tales of harm and mistreatment, and a slow yet steady fight to change these laws that put children in jeapordy.

Sherry Johnson Was Forced To Marry The Man Who Impregnated Her Against Her Will

At only nine years old, Sherry Johnson was forcefully impregnated by a church deacon twice her age. When her pregnancy was discovered, child welfare authorities became concerned and began asking questions.

Johnson's parents, along with other leaders in their church, decided that their reputations took precedence over their child's wellbeing. In order to "avoid a messy criminal case," Johnson's mother informed her that she had to marry the 20-year-old who had taken advantage of her. This union would make them appear as a "normal family" to state officials. 

Johnson gave birth to her daughter at age 10 and was married at 11. She had a total of nine children before she was able to divorce the man she was forced to marry.

Children Can't Sign Thei... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Child Marriage Is Still Legal In Half Of US States, And This Tragic Underaged Bride Is Proof
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Children Can't Sign Their Own Divorce Papers

Granted, there are some marital age restrictions in many states. For example, in New Hampshire, boys can get married at 14, and girls as young as 13 can wed, whereas some states – such as Texas, California, and Maine, among others – have no age floor. Despite these scant limitations, child marriage is technically legal in every single US state.

Whether through parental permission, judge approval, or as a result of special circumstances, thousands of children under the age of 18 get married in every state, every single year.

One prominent issue with this system is that minors cannot sign legal documents, including divorce papers. As they don't have true control over their own lives, they're often at the mercy of their partners and/or parents. Victims of child marriages are also frequently taken out of school.

Some Underage Marriages Are Consensual, But Most Aren't

Sherry Johnson said of her parents, "They forced me to marry him to cover up the scandal. Instead of putting the handcuffs on him and sending him to prison, they put the handcuffs on me and imprisoned me in a marriage."

While some underage marriages are consensual (for example, a 17-year-old girl marrying an 18-year-old man who about to be deployed with the army), many are not. For young girls, their parents often force them into a marriage, whether for religious, social, or legal reasons.

According to Fraidy Reiss, director of Unchained at Last – an organization dedicated to ending child marriage in the US – girls in these forced marriages are three times more likely to experience domestic violence. 

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Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Chris Christie Blocked A Law That Would Raise New Jersey's Legal Marriage Age 

In 2017, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would have made them the first state to fully ban marriage for teens under the age of 18. Before the bill could reach fruition, however, Governor Chris Christie shot it down. He used his veto power to kill the new law, stating that,

"Protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill's proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state."

Christie repeatedly referenced religious practices as a reason that teen marriage should remain legal. He also stated that if 16 year olds could legally have sex and get abortions without their parents' knowledge, they should be able to get married, as well.