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The Fight Continues to End Child Marriage in the U.S.

New York recently became the sixth state to ban child marriage with no exceptions. 44 U.S. states still allow children under the age of 18 to marry under certain circumstances — UNICEF USA and partners are working to change that. 

International conversations about child marriage often center on lower-income countries, but the practice exists right here in America. Between 2000 and 2018, almost 300,000 young girls and boys in the U.S. were married before their 18th birthday. The consequences for these children are the same for children everywhere: increased poverty, a higher risk of health complications and lower educational attainment.

New York recently became the sixth state to ban childhood marriage in the U.S. with no exceptions

UNICEF USA and partners are leading the effort to end child marriage in the United States. On July 23, 2021, New York's bill outlawing child marriage (S3086/A3891) became law, making New York the sixth state — after Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — to ban child marriage without exceptions.

Despite this progress, there are still significant barriers to passing similar child marriage laws in other states. Six states have pending legislation that would end all marriage under age 18, but the road to passage is not certain.

The biggest barrier to ending child marriage in the U.S. is lack of awareness

While opposition can arise from a variety of sources, the biggest barrier to ending child marriage in the U.S. is a lack of awareness. A recent survey found that nearly half of Americans polled believe that child marriage is already illegal in the all U.S. states. The remaining respondents believed that the practice was legal in five or fewer states. Without constituent education and public pressure, elected officials may not see the importance of pushing for legislation to formally outlaw child marriage. UNICEF USA's advocacy work is critical to overcoming this obstacle and raising awareness.

UNICEF USA has also seen pushback from groups concerned that ending child marriage would inappropriately limit the rights of a child or parent. Marriage laws in 44 states permit child marriage with parental consent and/or judicial approval. However, data suggests that judges often lack access to sufficient information to make this decision. Additionally, parental approval can often be synonymous with parental coercion — especially in the case of an unexpected pregnancy, financial instability or other situations that might influence a parent's decision. In all scenarios, child marriage limits the rights of a child and deprives them of the opportunity to control their future. 

UNICEF USA and partners are working to close loopholes in state laws that permit children to marry with consent from a parent or judge

Closing the loopholes in state marriage laws is a crucial step toward protecting the right of all children to reach their full potential. The negative consequences associated with child marriage are a violation of child rights, especially those of girls. Eighty-six percent of child marriages in the U.S. involve a girl married to a significantly older man. Instead of permitting child brides in America, state governments should invest in systems that support vulnerable girls and their families.

As more states pass laws banning child marriage, the U.S. moves closer to achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, which calls for the end of child marriage and female genital mutilation by 2030. UNICEF USA remains committed to ending child marriage, both in the U.S. and around the world. Success would bring the world one step closer to protecting children and ensuring that every child can grow up healthy and happy.

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Urge your state elected officials to end child marriage by supporting legislation in your state legislature.


Top photo: Marrying before age 18 is harmful and should be banned with no exceptions. UNICEF USA and Zonta International are working to end child marriage in the U.S. and around the world. Photos by Jodi B. Herrling for UNICEF