On Child Marriage: A Conversation with Amanda Parker

Amanda Parker is the Chief Financial Officer and Senior Director at the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation (AHA). Ms. Parker oversees AHA’s women’s rights program. She develops federal and state policy proposals to protect women and girls from harmful social and cultural practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. Recently, Ms. Parker worked with legislators in the state of Michigan to put in place the most comprehensive anti-female genital mutilation legislation in the country. She has facilitated trainings on issues ranging from honor violence to forced marriage for over 600 professionals likely to encounter such issues, and she has supported survivors of these abuses to help them find protection and the services they need.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Paul Taske: What inspired you to advocate for the rights of women and girls, particularly as it relates to the problem of child marriage?

Amanda Parker: So, the reason I started working in the world of public policy and advocacy is that I originally worked in the financial sector. I specialized in residential and mortgage-backed securities. But my department closed after the subprime crisis and I started talking to a girlfriend of mine about wanting to pursue something in either the non-profit space or publishing. My friend told me that I had to meet another friend of hers who was a New York Times bestselling author and starting a women’s rights foundation. So, she introduced me to Ayaan.[2]

When I met Ayaan the foundation was still getting off its feet and getting organized. But Ayaan and I hit it off immediately, and I started working for her personally. As I was working with her I learned about different issues affecting women and girls—forced marriage, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM)—and Ayaan’s personal experience with those issues.[3] I have always been passionate about women’s rights but I honestly didn’t know much about these specific issues until I started working with Ayaan. Then, when I started seeing that these things were happening in the United States, I became very passionate about them just like Ayaan.

So, at AHA we started out working on honor violence, forced marriage and FGM. We weren’t originally working on child marriage. But, as we were handling forced marriage cases, more and more we found minors coming to us facing forced marriages and we didn’t have the same tools available to help them as we did for adults who came to us facing a forced marriage. For example, as an adult we can help you find a domestic violence shelter, you can file for divorce if you’re already married, or you can hire an attorney to get an order of protection. None of these remedies are readily available to minors, though [this] varies slightly depending on the state. So, it is much more difficult to help a child facing a forced marriage than it is to help an adult. When we began talking to other advocates who were fighting against forced marriage the question came up: Why are we facing this child marriage issue at all? The United States government says this is a human rights abuse. [The United States spends] money to try and stop this from happening overseas. Nonetheless, at the time it was legal in all fifty states. So, that’s how we started working on child marriage at AHA and how I started becoming interested in it and passionate about it.

PT: So, what exactly is child marriage? How is it defined, and why is it a problem?

AP: The definition of child marriage is really simple; it’s marriage of anyone who has not reached the age of majority which, in most places, is eighteen. In all but two states there are still loopholes that allow for marriage under the age of eighteen. Just last year, in 2018, Delaware and New Jersey became the first two states to completely ban all marriage before the age of eighteen.[4]

Child marriage is really bad for a couple of reasons. The first reason we already touched on a little and that’s that it can really be forced marriage. Many states that have loopholes that allow for child marriage include one that says you can get married with parental consent. Typically, that means at age sixteen or above you can get married with parental consent. Now, in a forced marriage situation the parents are almost always the perpetrators. So, that parental consent exception isn’t going to protect someone from a forced marriage. Other loopholes include judicial approval—this is often used for marriages for children under the age of sixteen. These situations put the onus on the child facing a forced marriage to stand up for herself and tell the judge that she is being coerced. This isn’t a fair burden to place on someone who hasn’t reached the age of majority and who may fear repercussions back home if she says “I don’t want this.”

The second issue with child marriage is something we discovered after started looking into this. A researcher named Vivian Hamilton did some great research on child marriage in the United States, and what she found is that if you get married before the age of nineteen you are 50% more likely to drop out of high school, four times less likely to complete college, 31% more likely to live in poverty later in life, and 23% more likely to suffer from disease onset including diabetes, heart attack, and stroke than people who waited until they were older to get married.[5] The awful kicker on this is that those marriage are almost always doomed to fail. Almost 70-80% of them will end in divorce. So, child marriage can easily be forced marriage, but even if a minor thinks they are going into a marriage willingly it’s really bad for their long-term outcomes.

PT: Can you elaborate a bit more on those long-term outcomes? Are these issues limited to the children who get married and the spouse of the child, or are their broader issues to be concerned about?

AP: Well, poverty and diseases impact an entire society. In addition to that though, the children conceived in these marriages are also more likely to live in poverty and suffer from harmful outcomes as well. Child marriage is bad for the individuals who enter into it, for the children conceived during those marriages, and for society as well.

PT: How does the United States address the issue of child marriage? You mentioned that the U.S. condemns it as a human rights issue; yet, in all but two states child marriage is legal in some form or another. So, what are we doing to address the issue and come in line with our own professed beliefs?

AP: That’s a great question, and it’s kind of a multifaceted answer. On the state level, there are policy organizations like the AHA Foundation and some sister foundations that are working to remove the loopholes that allow for marriage under the age of eighteen. That’s not a governmental response, that’s an NGO response. But we are seeing momentum and leaders are paying attention. The last time I looked there were sixteen states with proposed legislation to end child marriage this session.

On the federal level, just recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a report that shows there is no minimum age to sponsor a spousal or fiancée visa, and no minimum age to come to the United States on a spousal or fiancée visa. That means—if we think about the forced marriage situation I talked about earlier—a minor in the United States whose parents are trying to force her into a marriage with someone overseas they can dangle the offer of U.S. citizenship as an incentive or carrot for why this person should marry their daughter. It’s similar to a dowry or bride-price. This report was released because we, the AHA Foundation, identified this loophole and wanted to know how many kids are impacted by this and married off through this loophole. The results were fairly shocking. Between 2007 and 2017 the U.S. government approved visas for 8,686 minors, the youngest of which was fourteen.[6] There are legislators who are planning to introduce a bill that would close this loophole so that children are not being forced to marry for immigration benefits.

PT: Is it easier to track child marriage information when the immigration aspect is present rather than when dealing with purely domestic occurrences?

AP: No. It’s very hard to acquire international or immigration information. For instance, it took over 1,000 man-hours to count and compile information on the 8,686 individuals I mentioned earlier because many of the records are physical paper records.

On the state level, most states track marriage license data—not all states, but most. An organization called Unchained at Last spent a year compiling information from all states that track marriage license data to find out how many minors were wed between 2000 and 2010 in the United States. Based on the information they compiled—they extrapolated the data for states that do not track marriage information—and estimated that approximately 250,000 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2010.

Ohio does track its marriage license data. Between 2000 and 2010 there were 4,180 minors married in the state. The youngest of which were fourteen.

PT: Why do some people view child marriage as permissible or as a non-issue when it occurs domestically?

AP: By-and-large the response that we get from people is shock that it is happening here. People don’t realize that it is happening here and is happening in the numbers that it is in the United States. People think this is a problem that’s happening somewhere else.

Many legislators are also shocked and are very supportive of putting laws in place to curve this. But you’ll always find a legislator whose great-grandmother got married at sixteen, was married for sixty years, and had the best relationship ever; so, they want to defend the right to get married below the age of eighteen. Some even have responses like: “Well Mary was a minor when she married Joseph.”[7] But often legislators will come up with scenarios that they think might constitute a permissible exception to a ban on child marriage. So, we field a lot of questions from legislators about why there shouldn’t be at least one exception to a ban on child marriage.

Yet, the funny thing is that in many states across the U.S. there are lots of age limits that are not as serious as marriage. For instance, in Massachusetts you have to be eighteen to go to a tanning bed but there’s no minimum age that a judge can’t approve a marriage in Massachusetts. You’re also not old enough to file for divorce but you’re old enough to get married which doesn’t make any sense. Also, in Massachusetts, they have a conflict between their rules permitting child marriage and their statutory rape laws. There you are not able to consent to sex before the age of sixteen, but judges can and do approve marriage below the age of sixteen. And there is no exception to the statutory rape law for marriage; so, hypothetically, if a couple is consummating their marriage the adult is committing statutory rape.

PT: I would like to raise one example of a potential exception to child marriage and then have you respond if you wouldn’t mind.

AP: Sure.

PT: Would it be appropriate to permit child marriage in certain military cases? For instance, if someone were to be drafted into service and wished to marry his seventeen-year-old high school girlfriend before he was deployed, would that be an exception you think should be permitted? Or do you think we should advocate for a complete ban?

AP: I definitely still fall into camp of “there should not be any exceptions.” One of the reasons why is that there have been military spouses that have been forced to marry. Just because someone is in the military does not mean that the marriage isn’t forced.

Another reason is that if the person is marrying for the military benefits, death benefits for instance, the military member can arrange to have the benefits given to anyone they want so long as they complete a bit of extra paperwork to arrange it.

After the bride turns eighteen the couple could marry by proxy, which, admittedly isn’t as romantic, but they could have a non-binding ceremony beforehand and then enter into a legal marriage when she turns eighteen.

Military situations actually add a layer of complications because, if there is abuse, the party who is being abused would have to report the abuse to the spouse’s employer. This could threaten her housing, his job, her ability to be supported, so it adds additional difficulties to handle abusive relationships in the military. Girls who haven’t reached the age of eighteen have a lot fewer options available to protect herself as we discussed earlier.

PT: You mentioned that the primary reaction when talking about this issue has been shock. What are some of the methods that you have found most effective to spread information about child marriage or when combatting child marriage?

AP: One thing that has been a trial-by-fire is figuring out that it’s best not to go in and condemn the legislators for the lousy laws in their state. Like I said, they’re generally just as shocked as everyone else that the laws are what they are and that so many minors are being married in their state. When you go and talk to them, talk to them as a human. Tell them about your own shock when you found out, inform them of the impact this issue is having on people in their state, and educate them about the easy legislative fix available. Really, just educating people about the fact that this is happening, happening in the numbers that it is, and talking to them about the legislative options.

When we were in Florida, we were talking about how the laws are the same as they are in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. While it makes for a good talking point it needs to segue into a wider conversation rather than beating the legislator over the head with that one point. Being able to talk to legislators and respond to their concerns and hypotheticals can be immensely valuable. Legislators are understandably concerned about putting in a hardline law and not understanding the potential consequences. You just have to be there and respond to their questions and try not to be surprised when they bring up outrageous examples to defend child marriage.

In some cases, we’ve talked to legislators who are from communities that say child marriage is just what happens in my community and there’s no way my constituents are going to get behind me voting to support this bill. You can argue with that legislator until you are blue in the face, but at some level you simply have to accept that reaction.

PT: I have heard you mention that you have encountered resistance from other public policy groups on this issue, can you elaborate a bit about why that is?

AP: Some women’s rights groups give a lot of autonomy to the individual operations within a given state and there have been cases where pro-choice groups are concerned that this would infringe on abortion rights. But this conflates two separate issues. By banning child marriage, you aren’t taking away someone’s right to marry, you are just delaying those rights. Whereas, if you delay the right to an abortion you are taking away those rights.

Another example is some civil liberties organizations have said that everyone should have the right to get married and you shouldn’t take that right away just because someone is under the age of eighteen.

But I cannot emphasize enough that the resistance we have encountered is not uniform from all pro-choice groups or civil liberties groups. Most national organizations support our work and understand the importance of ending child marriage.

PT: Throughout this conversation you’ve spoken about how this issue impacts young girls, is this issue exclusive to girls, or are boys at risk for child marriage as well?

AP: Great question, and I’m glad you asked. It does impact boys as well, but it’s primarily girls and the majority of those girls are married to adult men—meaning men over the age of 40. The statistics break down to about 95% of children involved in these marriages are girls. About 87% are girls married to adult men. But there are cases where boys are involved as well.

PT: Are there any other aspects of this issue you’d like to address?

AP: One aspect of child marriage to think about is the power imbalance that is created when a minor is married to an adult and when we talk about those different rights that are available to an adult but not a minor. If you have a minor who can’t access a domestic violence shelter, can’t ask for an order of protection without support, can’t ask for a divorce but is married to an adult who can, it creates a very unhealthy situation for the minor.

PT: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about this issue and the work you are doing to end child marriage.

AP: My pleasure. Thanks for asking me to do this and for spreading awareness about this topic.

  1. Associate Member, 2018-2019 Immigration and Human Rights Law Review
  2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the founder of the AHA foundation. Infidel, Hirsi Ali’s memoir, is an international bestseller. She has also written several other books including: The Caged Virgin, Nomad, Heretic: Why Islam Needs Reformation Now, and Challenge of Dawa.
  3. Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, provides a personal account of her own experience with FGM and an attempted forced marriage.
  4. Anjali Tuli, Delaware Becomes First State to Ban Child Marriage, Frontline (May 9, 2018), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/delaware-becomes-first-state-to-ban-child-marriage/; Sebastien Malo, New Jersey Law Gives Momentum to U.S. Efforts to Ban Child Marriage, Reuters (Jun. 22, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-marriage-children/new-jersey-law-gives-momentum-to-u-s-efforts-to-ban-child-marriage-idUSKBN1JI2X9.
  5. Hamilton, Vivian E., “The Age of Moral Capacity: Reconsidering Civil Recognition of Adolescent Marriage” (2012) Faculty Publications, Paper 1430.
  6. There were two requests initially approved for thirteen-year-olds which were eventually cancelled for unknown reasons.
  7. The Bible does not explicitly reference Mary’s age at any point.