At least 100,000 children are prostituted annually in the U.S., adding to the $9.8 billion U.S. sex trafficking industry. Children all over the country are subject to physical and sexual abuse, and most of the time it happens a lot closer to home than we would expect. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator, and an astonishing 68% are abused by family members.
What’s worse, some of the laws surrounding child sexual abuse and child marriage (or lack thereof) actually enable their practice. As a result, more than 200,000 children in the U.S. were married in the past 15 years alone. We often view child marriage as only being an issue in third-world countries, but in reality, it occurs right here in North America, too. Children as young as 10 have been married to far older adults, despite the legal requirement to wed being 18, or legal adulthood, nationwide.
In May, the high-profile Republican governor for New Jersey declined to sign into law a measure that would have made his state the first to ban child marriage without exception. Chris Christie claimed it would conflict with religious customs.
Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, said she was “literally shaking” when she first obtained data for New Jersey, where her group is based.
Nearly 3,500 children married in the state between 1995 and 2012.
“That number was so much higher than I had thought it would be,” she told Frontline. “Then, the fact that the children were as young as 13 and the fact that it was mostly girls married to adult men.”
Eight-seven per cent of the minors who married across the country between 2000 and 2015 were girls, with the majority either 16 or 17.
The youngest wedded were three 10-year-old girls in Tennessee who married men aged 24, 25 and 31 in 2001. The youngest groom was an 11-year-old who married a 27-year-old woman in the same state in 2006.
Children as young as 12 were granted marriage licences in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina, while 11 other states allowed 13-year-olds to wed.
Child brides usually come from poor backgrounds, said Dr Nicholas Syrett, author of American Child Bride.
He added: “Almost all the evidence indicates that girls in cities don’t get married young, that girls from middle class or wealthy families, don’t get married young. This is a rural phenomenon and it is a phenomenon of poverty.”
The bill vetoed by Mr Christie in May had already been approved by both houses of the legislature and would have made New Jersey the first state to outlaw child marriage.
He said it should have an exception so a judge can approve marriages for 16- and 17-year-olds, and the measure could still become law if the legislators resubmit the bill with his recommended changes.
Last month New York banned children aged under 17 from marrying. Previously minors as young as 14 were allowed to wed under state law providing they obtained parental and court permission.