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Child Marriage in the United States

Learn more about the loopholes which allow marriage under the age of 18 in most U.S. states.

There are too many exceptions to child marriage laws in the United States

Child marriage is harmful. It is a human rights violation that legitimizes abuse and denies girls’ autonomy. When young girls are forced to marry, they are essentially subject to state-sanctioned rape and are at risk of increased domestic violence, forced pregnancy, and negative health consequences, while being denied education and economic opportunity. Equality Now and our partners advocate that the minimum age for marriage be set at 18, no exceptions.

But did you know that only twelve U.S. states meet this standard? Equality Now works around the world to end child, early, and forced marriage, applying our legal expertise in support of partners, individual cases, and legislative efforts. The US should be no exception. 

What is child marriage, and is it really happening in the United States?

Child marriage occurs when one or both of the parties to the marriage are below the age of 18. Child marriage is currently legal in 38 states (only Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont have set the minimum age at 18 and eliminated all exceptions), and 20 U.S. states do not require any minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver.* Nearly 300,00 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, many much older.

What is the “statutory rape exception”?

Statutory rape is when one of the parties to sexual activity is below the age of consent. It does not have to be forcible, because a minor is not legally able to consent. In most states, child marriage is considered as a valid defense to statutory rape. The marital defense to statutory rape also used to be permitted under federal law in 18 U.S.C. Section 2243(c)(2).

While 18 U.S.C. 2243 was amended by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2022 to eliminate this statutory rape defense, a similar defense still exists in the United States Military Code under 10 U.S.C. Section 920b.

The exception under 10 USC Section 920b, and similar exceptions under state laws, suggests that the government condones the practice of child marriage as it allows an adult to engage in sexual activity with children, giving sexual predators an incentive to force a child to marry them. The law can effectively turn child marriage into a “get out of jail free” card for predators. These laws must be repealed to align U.S. laws with international standards and discouraging child marriage and rape in the U.S.

What can you do about it?

Call on your state elected officials to take action to end child marriage! Visit Unchained At Last for more details.

You can also join the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the U.S., and urge your friends and family to take these steps as well.

*NOTE: The data on state laws outlined on this page is updated regularly and was accurate as of July 12, 2023.