By Fraidy Reiss
Fraidy Reiss is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls in the United States to escape forced marriages, and works to end forced and child marriage in America. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN)People are looking in shocked disgust at the defenders of Roy Moore. How can so many Alabamans throw their support behind Moore, the Republican nominee for a United States Senate seat there, who is accused of pursuing or sexually abusing teens — including a 14 year-old — back when he was in his 30s? Moore denies the allegations, and is threatening to sue the Washington Post, where the report appeared last week.
Americans are appalled, unable to account for the bizarre responses of, for example, the state auditor, who likened Moore’s situation to the biblical story of Joseph and Mary, or the parade of citizen supporters defending Moore and doubting his accusers, or even an elementary school principal, who seemed to dismiss the allegations: “This all happened many years ago, correct? I honestly think we’re paying too much attention to it.” (She later said she didn’t mean for her comment to come out that way.)
How can such thinking persist anywhere in America in 2017? How can anyone not be horrified that a grown man could allegedly attempt sexual relations with a minor?
I must point out an awkward truth.
Child marriage — which often is legalized child rape — is happening at an alarming rate across the United States today. Clerks and judges openly give marriage licenses to adult men who are marrying young girls, granting the men a “get out of jail free” card that in many cases allows what would otherwise be against the law.
Moore’s alleged sexual encounters more than 30 years ago, as described by his accusers, were surreptitious, the actions of a man who knew he might get punished if he were caught. These adult husbands’ sexual encounters with child wives, on the other hand, are brazen, the actions of men who know they will not get punished because the government has sanctioned their misconduct and is complicit in it.
While most states set 18 as the marriage age, legal loopholes — such as judicial approval — in all 50 states allow marriage before 18. Laws in 25 states do not specify any minimum age for marriage.
Ironically, though Alabama’s child marriage laws are on their face abysmal, as they permit marriage before 18, they are relatively “strong” compared with other states across the nation: At least Alabama specifies that no child under 16 may marry.
In 2015, Unchained At Last — a nonprofit I founded in 2011 to fight forced marriage — collected marriage license data in the United States from 2000 to 2010, the time period for which the highest number of states had marriage age data available.
In just the 38 US states that track marriage ages, according to the available data, more than 167,000 children, some as young as 10, were married between 2000 and 2010. In all 50 states, Unchained At Last estimated that 248,000 children — or those under age 18 — were married in America in that decade. (Twelve states and Washington, DC, could not provide sufficient data on child marriage. For them, Unchained used a statistical model to estimate the number of children wed, based on the strong correlation Unchained identified between population and child marriage.)
Almost all the children married were girls wed to adult men, according to the data. In many cases, because of the age of the child or the spousal age difference, sex between the two would constitute statutory rape under that state’s laws.
This is happening in state after state, not only in Alabama. Since 1995, judges in my home state of New Jersey, for example, have handed marriage licenses to more than 105 men who instead should have been investigated for statutory rape under state law: The men were four or more years older than their child bride, who was between the ages of 13 and 15.
Horrifyingly, statutory rape within marriage is not considered a crime in many states. New Jersey is not one of those states. Thus, while those 105+ marriages are legal, every time those couples have sex, the husband could theoretically be charged with sexual assault.
Child marriage is an outrage not only when it legalizes or ignores statutory rape. Child marriage also is often forced marriage — imposed on minors who have little recourse. Before children become adults, which typically happens at age 18, they cannot easily leave home, enter a domestic violence shelter, retain an attorney or bring a legal action. They are nearly powerless to protect themselves if their parents or others try to force them into marriage.
I see the horrors of forced child marriage regularly through Unchained At Last. It means rape for the child on the wedding night and thereafter. It usually means the child is pulled out of middle school or high school, with all her or his hopes for the future destroyed. It means lifelong trauma.
Further, whether it is forced or not, child marriage devastates girls’ health, education and economic opportunities and significantly increases their risk of being beaten by their spouse. The US State Department considers marriage before 18 a “human rights abuse.”
Solving America’s child marriage problem should be simple. Every state can start by passing commonsense legislation I have helped to write to eliminate the archaic loopholes that permit marriage before 18, or before the age of adulthood, whichever is higher. Strong legislation to this effect is pending in Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
But the same legislation has failed recently in other states. Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill that passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support in New Jersey. New Hampshire legislators voted no, and Maryland legislators let the bill die, twice. Legislators in New York, Virginia, Texas and Connecticut passed weaker bills that still allow marriage before 18.
Sure, let’s be outraged about Moore’s alleged actions to prey on five teenage girls.
But let’s not forget the ongoing outrage of child marriage, happening legally right now in courthouses and clerks’ offices across America.