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‘I was handed to a complete stranger’: the survivors fighting to end child marriage in 37 US states — and the people who want to keep it legal

In Europe
July 09, 2024
‘I was handed to a complete stranger’: the survivors fighting to end child marriage in 37 US states — and the people who want to keep it legal

Courtney Kosnik was 16 when she met the man who would become her husband in a Detroit coffee shop. She thought she’d met her savior. She was living in poverty, under the care of an alcoholic mother who struggled to hold down jobs. He promised her stability. Two months later, he proposed.

No one in Kosnik’s life seemed bothered by the fact that the man was 28, more than a decade older than his bride-to-be, and he had a plan to get around her status as a legal minor: They just needed her mother’s permission to wed, and if she didn’t give it, they could always drive down to Ohio, where the rules around marriage were less strict.

Kosnik’s mother didn’t need much convincing. The man seemed polished and friendly, and he said that he could provide a “better moral upbringing” for her daughter. “Isn’t it crazy that someone wanted to give their wife a ‘moral upbringing’?” Kosnik, now 47, said. “I should have already been raised before I got married.”

On their wedding day in 1993, 10 guests watched a teenage Kosnik marry her adult fiance. Most of the man’s family made appearances, with one notable exception. “His uncle was a priest who married every single one of their family members for decades, but he would not consent to marry us because of the age difference,” Kosnik recalled.

I realized there was no way out

Courtney Kosnik

Any hopes Kosnik had of a better life with her husband were dashed on their wedding night, when he became physically violent for the first time. “Almost instantly, I wanted out of my marriage,” she said. But her husband controlled all their finances and kept a close eye on who she spoke to. When she tried to file for divorce six years into their marriage, he took their first child out of state, saying he wouldn’t come back until she changed her mind.

They stayed together for 24 years and had four children, separating only after Kosnik was able to secretly obtain her first credit card. She used the $5,000 credit line to pay for a divorce attorney.

Kosnik now understands that her marriage as a child should never have happened. Last year, she joined Unchained at Last, a group of child marriage survivors from across the country who successfully lobbied Kosnik’s home state of Michigan to outlaw the practice in September.

However, child marriage, which activists describe as one or both parties entering a union while under age 18, remains legal in 37 US states. There are no federal laws against it, meaning minors can marry, with parental consent, before they can vote, drink, or buy lottery tickets in the majority of the country. Some states have a minimum marriage age on the books, which ranges from 15 to 18. Four states – California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mississippi – do not specify any minimum age at all.

Many survivors say they felt trapped in their marriages. Some, like Kosnik, must rely on their spouses for financial support. Others are up against complicit parents, who sign off on forced unions. In many states, statuatory rape is not a crime within marriage, creating a legal loophole that entices predators and increases the likelihood of sexual abuse. “Child marriage can be seen as a workaround for child rape,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last.

Jhumka Gupta is an associate professor of public health at George Mason University who studies gender-based violence and child marriage. Her work focuses on the topic outside of the US but she draws some general conclusions about survivors.

“We know that child marriage has been associated with higher likelihood of poor birth outcomes, unplanned pregnancies, and worse mental health outcomes compared to women who were not married before the age of 18,” Gupta said. She also noted that a girl who marries before 18 is less likely to complete her education, diminishing her ability to make her own money.

The US government calls child marriage a human rights abuse and has committed up to $5.3m to prevent it “in regions, countries, and communities where interventions are most needed and most likely to achieve results”. American exceptionalism would lead people to associate these regions with the global south, not the US, Gupta says. “Of course it’s prevalent here, too.”

Close to 300,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2018 in the US, according to a study conducted by Unchained at Last; a small number of them were as young as 10. Because 78% of minors who wed in that timespan were girls with adult husbands, advocates frame their cause around saving underage girls from older men.

So far this year, survivors have successfully campaigned to get child marriage taken off the books in three states, marking steady progress towards their goal of ending child marriage completely in the US by 2030. But, Reiss says, indifference is a challenge: “It’s been difficult to get legislators to pay attention to the issue and to take the simple, commonsense step of saying you have to be 18 to marry, the same way you have to be 18 to enter into almost any other contract.”

Advocates also face interference from a seemingly odd cohort: rightwing politicians who are using child marriage as ammunition in their war on reproductive rights, and left-leaning organizations who say they are defending the rights of young people by protecting the legality of child marriage.

Mounting opposition

The US didn’t have a problem with child marriages until the mid-19th century, when people began associating adolescence with innocence that required protecting. “As this happened, more people found the practice of child marriage unusual and wanted to regulate it,” said Nicholas L Syrett, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.

Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a pioneering women’s rights activist of the time, wrote that her marriage at 16 was her “great lifelong mistake”, only made due to pressure from her family. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for teenage girls to have husbands. Later on in life, Smith believed that girls could not freely give their consent, and she campaigned to raise the US legal marrying age to 21, the age of adulthood at the time.

Certain circumstances legitimized child marriage. Adults found it noble if the practice prevented teen mothers from having babies out of wedlock. “Child marriage was seen as a solution to sex outside of marriage,” Syrett said. “They didn’t want children being born as bastards in an era when that used to have legal consequences.”

By the 1930s, roughly 10% of 17-year-old girls were married, according to census data compiled by PBS. In 1937, the 22-year-old tobacco farmer Charlie Johns married his nine-year-old neighbor, Eunice Winstead, in Tennessee. The couple became a source of national fascination: Life magazine sent photographers to shoot the pair, and newspaper images showed Winstead posing with her husband and a baby doll – a wedding gift from Johns, the New York Times reported at the time. Embarrassed Tennessee lawmakers quickly put a minimum marriage age of 16 on the books. (Winstead and Johns stayed married until his death in 1997.)

A year later, the tale received the exploitation film treatment with Child Bride, about a young girl saved from a predatory marriage in the nick of time. An opening-credit sequence read: “In dramatizing life among these ‘back yonder’ folk, we aim neither to ridicule nor to defend their mode of living … and if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage it will have served its purpose.”

Child marriage last truly peaked in the US during the baby boom of the 1950s, when American society promoted domesticity and homespun middle class values. “We have been on a very steady decline since then,” Syrett said, though he added it was more common among girls from rural and poor areas. “Child marriage is not something that middle-class kids who think they’re going to graduate high school and go to college do,” he said. “This happens among impoverished people.”

Resistance to change

Kosnik entered her marriage because she needed money – and that’s why she stayed, too, despite “constant physical and emotional violence” from her husband. “I was completely defeated within the first year of marriage, before I ever turned 18 years old,” she said. “I realized there was no way out.”

Sara Tasneem found herself similarly stuck in a child marriage at the age of 15. In 1997, she spent a summer with her father in Los Angeles. He had divorced her mother, who lived with Tasneem in Denver, and joined what Tasneem calls an extremist “Sufi cult”, where men were encouraged to marry young girls.

People preferred to look the other way instead of asking: ‘Are you OK?’

Sara Tasneem

When Tasneem’s mother learned she had a boyfriend in Denver, she was sent to her father’s home, where he lectured her about the sins of sex outside of marriage. Later that summer, Tasneem’s father took her to a religious conference he had organized, with thousands in attendance. During the conference, Tasneem’s father introduced her to a 20-year-old man.

“He told me to go talk to some man who was sitting in a coffee shop, and he was clearly an adult,” Tasneem recalled. “I sat across from him and he said, ‘I don’t want to wait for a long engagement.’ That’s the only part of the conversation that I remember, and it was really uncomfortable, but I didn’t really know what he was talking about.” Later, Tasneem’s father told her that another religious leader in the group had picked the man out to be her husband.

“I was physically handed over to a complete stranger,” Tasneem said. “I went from being a freshman in high school and having hopes and dreams of going to law school or joining the air force, and that completely changed my summer. My virginity was robbed from me. I went from being a kid to being a wife.”

The marriage was initially symbolic, but some men from the cult advised Tasneem’s husband to make it legal, and when she was 16 they did so at a drive-in chapel in Nevada. There, Tasneem handed the officiant a signed permission slip from her father. The officiant didn’t seem to care about her young age.

“The common reaction I got from any type of adult outside of the situation was that they looked at me like I wasn’t even a human being,” she said. “People preferred to look the other way instead of asking: ‘Are you OK?’ I don’t care what religion you’re a part of: you still deserve to be treated like a human being.”

When Tasneem got pregnant, her doctor treated her with scorn. “I was 16 and this could have been a situation where an adult helped me, but instead they looked down on me,” she said. Tasneem stayed in the marriage for 10 years, leaving it after she managed to attend college and find work as a single mother. She became an activist with Unchained at Last when she realized other women shared similar experiences.

Reiss, who founded Unchained at Last in 2011, grew up in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and was forced by her family to marry a stranger at age 19. It was a forced marriage: even though she was an adult, she didn’t consent to the act. The United Nations categorizes all child marriage as forced marriage.

Reiss ultimately defied the community, divorcing her husband and receiving an education at Rutgers University. She later became a reporter for the Asbury Park Press and private investigator at a financial and risk advisory firm.

Reiss and the survivors who campaign with her are known for their dramatic activism; the women go to state legislatures wearing wedding dresses and chains to symbolize their trauma. Thirteen states, plus the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa territories, have banned child marriage since 2017, in large part due to the survivors’ efforts. Some bans are stronger than others. In 2019, Utah raised its marriage age from 15 to 16, which Unchained at Last categorizes as “weak”. Other states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, completely ended child marriage, meaning it’s illegal for anyone to marry under the age of 18, regardless of parental consent. In April, Virginia became the first state in the south to ban child marriage; Washington and New Hampshire also passed bans this year.

Related: Child marriage in decline – but will take 300 years to eliminate

Unchained at Last is the largest and best known US advocacy group, and in 2018 it partnered with Equality Now, an organization that advocates for women and girls, to create the National Coalition to End Child Marriage. Its goal is to end child marriage completely in the US by 2030. Along with state-by-state actions, they hope to address the practice at federal level. For instance, US immigration law does not specify a minimum age to petition for a foreign spouse to be the beneficiary of a spousal visa. Tasneem’s husband earned a green card through marrying her, which she believes was at least one motivating factor for him.

“If marriage had been illegal, in my case, my perpetrator may not have married me,” she added. “The laws incentivized him to continue to abuse me.”

Reiss says that representatives from every major religion have backed efforts to block child marriage, with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith leaders testifying in support of bans. (It’s the fringe, fundamentalist sects that are against the bans, but voicing that stance “is a bad look”, Reiss said.) However, some secular organizations have argued against the coalition’s efforts: in California last year, local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood came out against a law that would have banned child marriage in the state. “They see it as a reproductive rights issue, that the ability to decide to get married is an issue of choice,” Syrett, the historian, said. The law did not pass because, according to the Los Angeles Times, these organizations exerted influence over Democratic lawmakers.

The ACLU did not respond to a request for comment. Jennifer Wonnacott, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told the Guardian that the organization “agrees that coerced and forced marriages are a human rights abuse and strongly supports protecting minors from abuse of all kinds.”

Wonnacott added: “We strongly believe in and support safeguarding the ability of young people, including those pregnant or parenting, to make personal decisions that are right for their own unique circumstances, particularly those concerning their sexual and reproductive health.” In other words, if a 16-year-old pregnant girl wants to marry before giving birth, she should be able to.

Kosnik, the Michigan survivor, said that most of the pushback she received in her state came from more conservative lawmakers. Appropriating the language of the reproductive rights movement, they argued that a young girl should have the “choice” to get married, citing various scenarios: what about a pregnant teen who wants to marry the baby’s father? Or a girl whose slightly older boyfriend is about to deploy overseas?

They also attempted to turn the law into a culture war issue: the Michigan state senator Jim Runestad unsuccessfully tried to slip a ban on allowing minors access to puberty blockers into the law, while the state representative Matt Maddock used a transphobic slur to drive the point home. “The same people who put [trans issues] in elementary schools and libraries are suddenly hyper-moralistic about 17 year old High School Sweethearts getting married, I don’t get it,” he said in a statement sent to the local outlet Michigan Advance.

“This is not about young love,” countered Reiss. “That’s bullshit.”

Republicans have likewise latched on to the idea that allowing child marriage will decrease the frequency of abortions. That’s the reason a ban on the practice has stalled in Missouri. The state representative Hardy Billington, an opponent of the ban, told the Kansas City Star: “My opinion is that if someone [wants to] get married at 17, and they’re going to have a baby, and they cannot get married, then … chances of abortion are extremely high.” The state representative Jess Edwards of New Hampshire, who voted against the ultimately successful ban in that state, argued that teens are of “ripe, fertile age” and marriage could be an alternative for abortion. He asked: “Are we not in fact making abortion a much more desirable alternative, when marriage might be the right solution for some freedom-loving couple?”

Kosnik describes lobbying these politicians as making her feel like she was speaking to “people from the 1950s”.

“It was all very, very old belief systems that don’t show where we are today,” she said. “It doesn’t give women any agency over their bodies.”

When Michigan banned child marriage in September, raising the minimum age to 18, Kosnik and her fellow survivors watched the senate vote in the galley. They were careful to sit in a section that would be in full view of the senators they’d spent two years lobbying as they walked up to vote.

“It was powerful,” Kosnik said. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had actually taken back control.”

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