Delaware Outlawed Child Marriage — But It's Still Legal In 49 States

Ivan Bogdanov/Unsplash

Some people may think of child marriage as an issue for developing countries, but children under the age of 18 can legally get married in every state in America — except one. Last week, Delaware outlawed child marriage, becoming the first state to do so and sparking a discussion about why the United States still allows minors to enter into marriages. Many states' attempts to raise the legal marriage age have either failed or left loopholes allowing child marriage in certain cases.

"Again and again, states have started with an 18-no-exceptions law but watered it down along the way," Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, says in a statement to Bustle. "In Delaware, they finally broke through that barrier. Hopefully other states will be ready to follow in the near future."

New Hampshire exemplifies that trend: The state Senate unanimously voted last week to raise the minimum marriage age from 13 to 16, after a similar bill seeking to raise the marriage age to 18 failed last year. The bill now awaits a signature from Gov. Chris Sununu, who's been a vocal champion of the measure.

While the minimum marriage age is 18 in most states, all except Delaware allow for broad exceptions, such as parental consent. In 23 states, children of any age are allowed to marry under certain circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch.

More than 167,000 children were married in 38 states between 2000 and 2010, analysis by the nonprofit Unchained At Last found, roughly 77 percent of whom were underage girls marrying adult men. Unchained At Last estimates that the total number of child marriages in the United States during that decade was really closer to 248,000, as the remaining 12 states and Washington, D.C. couldn't provide data on the subject. "Some children were wed at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that constitutes statutory rape under their state's laws," Unchained At Last's website reads.

Broken down by state, Idaho, Kentucky, and Arkansas had the highest rates of child marriage out of the 38 states with available data. Delaware — the only state to fully ban marriage before the age of 18 — was among the states with the lowest number of early marriages.

New Jersey could soon follow in Delaware's footsteps, as lawmakers are considering a complete ban on child marriage. State law currently allows 16-year-olds to get married with parental consent, as well as children under 16 with permission from a judge. “It will go a long way toward preventing young people from being forced into arranged marriages against their will,” state Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz told New Jersey radio station 101.5.

Former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure seeking to raise the legal marriage age to 18 in 2017, saying in his veto message that the bill didn't "comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State."

Kentucky's attempt to raise the marriage age from 13 to 18 earlier this year didn't even go to a vote.

The United Nations Population Fund considers early marriage a human rights violation. One in every five girls worldwide is either married or in a union before the age of 18, according to the fund's website. That number doubles in the least developed countries, and the United Nation's 2016 Sustainable Development Goals vowed to work toward ending child marriage by 2030. Barr says that won't be possible unless developed nations like the United States start taking action, however.

"Child marriage causes devastating harm to girls," Barr says. "There’s no hope of meeting that goal unless key donors like the U.S. get onboard. Delaware is a sign that it just might."