Child marriages devise loopholes for sexual abuse against children – with a study showing that child marriages violate statutory rape laws, in 14 U.S. states
As of 2021, child marriage remains legal in 44 U.S. states. With the permission of parents, children can marry from as early as 12 years old, often to people double their age.
As defined by the United Nations, child marriage regards any age before the age of 18 and is widely considered a violation of human rights, regardless of parental consent.
Child marriage can harm physical and mental health, educational opportunities, and human rights of children – especially young girls – and often incentivises indecent sexual acts towards children.
From 2000 and 2018 in the U.S., nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 were legally married, mostly girls. Globally around 12 million girls under age 18 marry every year.
This study highlights the blurred legal boundary between child marriage and sexual violence, lifting the veil on cultural norms which negatively affect children, finding marital exemptions to statutory rape laws to encourage sexual acts with children – which elsewhere, is considered criminal.
Marriage permitted before legal age of consent
Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a new study highlights that child marriages violated statutory rape laws in 14 states – where in many U.S. states, children can legally marry at an earlier age than they can consent to sex.
According to researchers from McGill University, this controversial situation entails that sex between spouses may be a criminal act, but some states exempt sex between married spouses from their definition of statutory rape, which allows people to take advantage of children when legally married to them.
The researchers compared data from marriage certificates and statutory rape laws across the U.S., finding that the proportion of child marriages that met the definition of a sex crime in different states varied from 1% to over 50%.
In 33 states, most statutory rape laws excused sex between married couples from the definition of sex crimes. In these states, the proportion of child marriages that would have been crimes, absent these exemptions, varied from less than 1% to over 80%.
Senior author Alissa Koski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of in Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University, said: “Our study exposes the inconsistency between laws that permit children to marry and laws that criminalize sex with children across the U.S.
“The research shows that some child marriages are indistinguishable from sex crimes. It’s unclear why they were certified as marriages rather than prosecuted.”
Statutory rape laws overlap with child marriages
While some states have more restrictive laws, others were more lenient. Such as seen in Idaho, where sex before age 18 was prohibited for all unmarried persons until 2010. In this case, many child marriages did meet the definition of sex crimes.
Conversely, Michigan prohibits sex with someone less than 16 years old, unless the individuals are married. For states like these, fewer child marriages met the definition of crimes since most of the marriages involve 16- or 17-year-olds, which states consider to be of legal consent.
Lead author Kaya Van Roost, a PhD student, added: “We were surprised by the enormous variation between states’ statutory rape laws and how they overlapped with child marriages. We were also alarmed to find some extremely young children were married over the period that we studied.
“For instance, four 12-year-olds have been legally married in Louisiana since 2000.”
Alissa Koski finalised: “The simultaneous legality of child marriage and marital exemptions to statutory rape laws provide legal loopholes for sexual acts with children that would otherwise be considered crimes.”
The study emphasises that marital exemptions to statutory rape should be re-examined and that the minimum legal age for marriage should be raised to avoid inconsistencies with statutory rape laws. Cultures which permit child marriage are essentially encouraging the abuse of children.
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