marrying children to adults, “America’s best kept secret”

“It’s often thought that child marriage is only about developing countries. Think again, it’s America’s dirtiest and best-kept secret.” So speaks Fraidy Reiss, founder of the NGO “Unchained at Last”. For the past ten years, she has been fighting to eradicate forced marriages in her country. An unknown reality, including Americans. Elle magazine lifts the veil this week.

The figures are overwhelming: between 2000 and 2018, around 300,000 minors have been married, most around 16-17 years old and sometimes as early as 10 years old. In 9 out of 10 cases, they are girls united with adult men. Legally, however, the minimum age for marriage is 18.
Except that each state allows exceptions. First there is “parental consent” : young people aged 16 or 17 can get married if their parents sign an application. Even if the girl cries while her parents sign, the clerk does not have the power to intervene.

Second exception: in many states, the age of marriage can be lowered below 16 by judicial approval. About ten states do not even specify a minimum age. For example, in California, Michigan or Mississippi, judges can authorize the marriage of an elementary school student.

Raped and pregnant at 11

This is what happened to Sherry Johnson. In 1972, at age 11, she was raped several times by a member of her Pentecostal ward, a young man of 20. And she gets pregnant. To avoid criminal investigation and stigma, the church and its family decide to organize a wedding. The local government agent refuses to validate the union. But in the neighboring county, another judicial officer, less observant, marries the little girl to her attacker.

Fraidy Raiss is disgusted: “we were able to show that in less than 20 years, 60,000 marriages were celebrated between people with such a difference in age that it would be a sexual crime if they were not. brides. But now, it becomes legal. What is the point of having laws? “.

Sometimes marriage is the culmination of a battered childhood, a way for abusive parents to have one less mouth to feed. Often, too, marriage is also a means of controlling girls’ sexuality, to obtain a visa thanks to a foreign husband, or to conform to religious traditions, whether they are Catholic, Muslim, Mormon or Jewish.

My relatives never forgave me for leaving my executioner

Fraidy Reis, founder of the NGO “Unchained at Last”

This is also the story of Fraidy Reis, who belongs to the Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn. At 19 she was forced to marry a man chosen by her family, a man who raped and beat her for almost twenty years. “My relatives have never forgiven me for leaving my executioner “, she says. “They consider me dead. I lost everything.” Today she wears a tattoo of a broken chain around her wrist.

With her association, Fraidy Reiss helped 700 women and some men to escape these forced unions. But only adults. “A lot of minors are calling us,” she said. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything for them, we don’t have the right. Those who flee the marital home or that of their parents are considered runaways. Usually, they are taken home by the police, even if they are subjected to violence. “

Likewise, a married child does not have the option of employing a lawyer and filing for divorce without a legal guardian. Then Fraidy Reiss has only one obsession: to change the law. Since 2017, five states have switched. There are 45 left.

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