Child marriage is a human rights violation.

The Fight to End Child Marriage in California

UNICEF USA is working with partners including Unchained at Last to end child marriage in the United States. Eleven U.S. states have already passed legislation banning marriage before the age of 18, with no exceptions. California could be next. 

Join UNICEF USA in calling on your elected officials to end child marriage with zero exceptions.

Child marriage is a child rights violation

Janette was only 14, a southern California ninth grader, when she was introduced to the 21-year-old man who would soon become her husband. Her mother "would have him come over and sleep on the couch. I thought, 'Why is he here?' Next thing I know, I'm at his place," said Janette, now a 56-year-old activist working to end child marriage. "I know the truth now. She sold me."

Child marriage — the formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child — is an internationally recognized human rights violation and a global problem: an estimated 640 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood. Nearly half of the world's child brides live in South Asia (45 percent) with the next largest share from sub-Saharan Africa (20 percent).

But child marriage also exists right here in the United States. 

The minimum age to marry varies from state to state

Nearly 300,000 children, some as young as 10, were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018 — mostly girls wed to adult men, according to Unchained at Last, a survivor-led advocacy nonprofit dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the U.S. 

There is no federal law governing the legal age of marriage in the U.S. Laws vary from state to state, a patchwork of age limits from 15 to 18 that can be circumvented through various loopholes regarding parental consent or a judges's decision. Seven states — including California — have no minimum age at all

Only 11 states have outlawed marriage before the age of 18, with zero exceptions

On March 7, 2024, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill ending child marriage in the state of Washington, joining Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. 

In February 2024, California Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris introduced legislation to ban state-sanctioned marriage before the age of 18. “The U.S. considers marriage under the age of 18 to be a human rights abuse, yet, right here in the great state of California, children are still victims of forced child marriage,” Petrie-Norris said. “It is absolutely shocking, it is horrifying, and it is time we finally end this outrageous practice."

The legal age of sexual consent is 18 in California

California's age of sexual consent is 18. Sex with a child is a crime, either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the age difference and the facts of the case — unless the perpetrator marries the child first. As Unchained at Last founder Fraidy Reiss, herself a survivor of forced marriage, told the Los Angeles Times“If you have sex with a child in California, you can be prosecuted, but marrying a minor amounts to a 'get out of jail free' card.”  

"If a man can go to prison for sleeping with an underage girl, then why is it allowable just because they're married?" asked Janette. "It's the same crime, just a piece of paper between them."

Child brides are trapped in legal limbo

For girls under 18 trying to escape an abusive home life, child marriage may seem like a way out, but they can find themselves in "a horrible legal trap," without the rights they need to extricate themselves from a bad situation, Reiss explained in an essay published in the Sacramento Bee.

In states that allow marriage before age 18, girls can marry but usually can't get a divorce until they reach the legal age of adulthood, which is 18 in most states. 

"Teens do not wake up on their 18th birthday with newfound maturity," Reiss wrote. "Rather, they wake up with the rights of adulthood that are cruclal to escape a forced marriage: leaving home, entering a domestic violence shelter, retaining an attorney and independently bringing a legal action." 

The harmful effects of child marriage can last a lifetime

The longterm effects of child marriage are well documented. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to stay in school. Adolescent girls who become pregnant face higher risks of eclampsia and other health conditions, and their babies face higher risks of low birth weight and preterm birth. 

They also often experience the stigma associated with being a child bride. "I didn't tell my story because people treated it like it was shameful," said Janette, who said she has struggled with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. "That's why I got involved with Unchained. Seeing, oh my gosh, there's people like me, that aren't keeping the secret. They're being verbal about this issue. I didn't even realize that it was such as an issue until I got involved with Unchained."

After marrying at 14, Janette became pregnant and had a baby boy. Two years later, the man she married disappeared with her toddler. "I didn't see my son again for 15 years," she said. "I never got to experience any of the high school stuff, the normal things girls go through. I've been in survival mode since I was 14. There was quite a bit of time when I was homeless. I slept in a garage. Being homeless and young is very scary, especially if you're a female."  

Child marriage shouldn't be an option

Janette eventually went on to graduate from high school and college, remarry and have two more sons. But she has an unequivocal message for lawmakers: "Don't make child marriage a choice. If there's a girl in need, they need to find out why. Why is somebody trying to marry her off? Marrying young shouldn't be an option."

Today, she is a dedicated activist, working with Unchained and sharing her story to prevent other girls from falling into the trap of child marriage. "I'm not sure how many of the child brides don't have anyone else to turn to, like I didn't," she said.  

Join UNICEF USA in calling on your elected officials to end child marriage with zero exceptions.



TOP PHOTO: Marriage before the age of 18 is a harmful practice and a violation of child rights. UNICEF USA is working with partners to put an end to child marriage in the United States. Photo illustration © UNICEF USA