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Understanding 'The Full Extent Of America's Child Marriage Problem'

In this image taken from video, Fraidy Reiss, center, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a non-profit organization with the goal to end child marriages, demonstrates in chains at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Anna Gronewold/AP)
In this image taken from video, Fraidy Reiss, center, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a non-profit organization with the goal to end child marriages, demonstrates in chains at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. (Anna Gronewold/AP)

Delaware made history in May, becoming the first state in the U.S. to ban any marriage involving children under 18 years old. However, concerns about underage marriage have prompted discussions about why it’s still permitted in most states.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Fraidy Reiss (@FraidyReiss), founder and executive director of the nonprofit Unchained At Last, about child marriage in the U.S. and her own personal experience.

“I was 19 when my family pressured me into marrying a stranger who turned out to be violent,” Reiss says. “And then, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where I was raised, getting out was nearly impossible because I did not have the legal right to divorce my husband. Under religious law only he could divorce me.”

Interview Highlights

On why many states still allow child marriage

“Good question. I’ve been mulling that over myself. For a long time, I thought it was just legislators didn’t know. These are, for the most part, archaic laws. And I thought, ‘Once I bring this to the attention of legislators, they’ll give me a hug and a high-five and immediately pass legislation to end child marriage.’ And, unfortunately, what I’ve discovered is that ignorance was not the only problem. Because even after we at Unchained at Last have worked to bring this to the attention of legislators across the United States, many have said, ‘No, thank you’ to ending this human rights abuse that destroys girls’ lives. We’ve introduced legislation in almost two dozen states, and in state after state, legislators have rejected or watered down the legislation.”

On pushing for legislative change in New Jersey

“We thought, last year, that New Jersey was going to be our first victory. I worked personally for two years to get that bill through with strong bipartisan support. Nobody objected to this bill. It was a really popular bill. Gov. [Chris] Christie claimed that the reason he did this was that ending child marriage would somehow interfere with religious customs in this state. But I publicly challenged Gov. Christie to name a single religion that requires child marriage and he still has not responded. In fact, religious leaders from many different faiths came out in support of the bill to end child marriage, in New Jersey and in other states. I had no idea what Christie was thinking other than there was some other reason that he did it. And, in fact, he later admitted that the reason he did it was because he was lobbied by an anti-choice group that was concerned that ending child marriage would somehow increase abortion rates, which is absurd. There’s no study that has ever shown that.”

On how widespread child marriage is

“For a long time, nobody knew the full extent of America’s child marriage problem. But we at Unchained at Last recently undertook this groundbreaking research project. We retrieved marriage license data from across the U.S. What we discovered is 12 states, unfortunately, don’t even track the data. But in the other 38 U.S. states, in just the decade, 2000 to 2010, more than 167,000 children as young as 12 were married. Almost all of them were girls married to adult men.”

On whether this is related to religion or not

“The data that we retrieved from across the U.S. did not include identifying information about the children who were married, for the most part. So we don’t know from the data why they were married or whether they were from specific religions. We know from the women and girls who reach out to us that this is happening in every major religion, in minor religions and in secular backgrounds.”

On loopholes that let child marriage go forward

“Usually in those cases where a judge’s approval is required, that goes along with parental consent, which, unfortunately, we know is often parental coercion. But what typically happens is the child — it’s usually a girl, almost all the children who marry in the U.S. are girls — that girl who is being married off is effectively disempowered throughout this process, because it’s a judge and her parents who are making these decisions for her. So, unfortunately, in many states legislators assume that if a judge is involved in the process that that’s somehow protecting children and preventing forced child marriages, where, in fact, what we know from the many survivors that we’ve worked with, is that of the countless survivors we’ve worked with, who went in front of a judge and went through a judicial review process before being forced to marry, not a single one of them ever felt safe enough to tell the judge what was actually happening. Every single one lied to the judge and then forever felt somehow complicit in her own forced marriage. Which means rape on her wedding night, rape repeatedly thereafter, pulled out of high school, her hopes and dreams for the future gone.”

On her personal experience

“I didn’t have reproductive rights. I had no financial rights, not allowed to work, maintain my own bank account or credit card. It took me 12 years to get out of that marriage. And when I finally escaped with my two daughters, out of this abusive marriage, my family shunned me. They punished me for leaving by declaring me dead. But after I got out, managed to rebuild my life as a dead woman, after my family had declared me dead. I founded Unchained at Last to help other women who are escaping from a forced marriage, either trying to say no to a forced marriage before it happened, or trying to escape from one after it already happened. And at Unchained At Last, we’re almost always able to help the women 18 or older who call to beg for help in this traumatic situation.

“I have had almost no contact with my family, with a couple of exceptions. But they still consider me dead. It’s been 13 years now.”

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