Did you know that 650 million women and girls alive today were married as children and 12 million girls under 18 are married each year? Globally, around 21 percent of young women were married before their 18th birthday, according to UNICEF.
UNICEF — now called The United Nations Children’s Fund but originally known as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund — was founded in 1946. It was created to offer emergency food and health care to children and mothers in countries that had been devastated by World War II.
I was awakened to this issue while attending the 36th Social Work Day at the United Nations on April 1, 2019. The theme for the day was “Strengthening Human Relationships: Policies and Programs to Protect Children.”
I must confess that I am typically focused on what is happening closer to home, but the information presented by a panel of UN diplomats, policy officers and child protection specialists, as well as front-line social workers, was eye-opening.
In addition to child marriage, the international group of experts focused on a number of other disturbing statistics such as the astounding number of children that are forced into labor from as early as five years old. Worldwide, 218 million children between 5 and 17 years are employed and 73 million work in hazardous conditions
Although the presentations were all compelling, I was particularly interested in how the issue of child marriage manifests itself in the U.S.
The facts are that, although child marriage happens mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 200,000 minors (mostly girls) were married in the United States between 2000 and 2015, and not only in rural areas as is widely believed.
The minimum legal age that young people are permitted to marry in most states in our country is 18, although in six states that age is as low as 14 or 15.
But there are a number of “loopholes,” reported social worker Bushra Husain from NYC-based Sanctuary for Families. For example, if one of the parties is pregnant or if the minor has given birth to a child, then in 47 states, marriage is permitted for children under 18.
Child marriage is a violation of human rights that remains widespread despite laws against it. It can forestall their education and lead to a lifetime of suffering including high rates of domestic violence and the deaths of young adolescent girls due to more complications in pregnancy and childbirth than for women in their 20s.
Furthermore, their children are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life.
The good news is that there is a movement toward change. In 2018, New Jersey and Delaware became the first states to outlaw marriage for anyone less than 18 years of age, with no loopholes.
UNICEF reports that strong bills to end child marriage are currently pending in 11 state legislatures. To learn more about this, go to the link for this special 2018 report by Sarah Ferguson entitled: “What you need to know about child marriage in the U.S.” https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/what-you-need-know-about-child-marriage-us/35059
H.E. Georgi Panayotov, an ambassador to the UN from Bulgaria, tied the day together with a caution by Nelson Mandela: “History will judge us on the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.”
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, call (516) 626-1971 or visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.