This summer, I'll attend the wedding of a child bride in the Deep South — the same place where my 32-year-old friend is a grandmother

Judges still sign off on young girls getting married at ages younger than 18 — and sometimes even younger than the state's age of consent — shockingly often across the US

Madeline Ruth Somerville
New York
Monday 01 April 2019 19:22 BST
Growing up in Alabama, one of my friends was married off by her mom to avoid being taken into social care for neglect
Growing up in Alabama, one of my friends was married off by her mom to avoid being taken into social care for neglect (WIN-Initiative)

One day this summer, in the sweltering heat of exurban Atlanta’s Deep South Side, south of Jonesboro but north of Macon where the white flight went, a 16-year-old girl will be kissed for the first time by her beau.

It won’t be in a parked car after seeing some new superhero blockbuster at the multiplex; no, she’ll be kissed as a bride, afterwards to begin her life as a housewife living in a guest house behind her parents’ home with her new husband. Her parents are not only totally OK with this, but they’re happily planning the reception and will be signing for her to get her marriage license along with a local judge. She’s already dropped out of school, I heard.

This is happening in my family. In 2019. In America.

I know I’m not the only one in the family who’s quietly having a cow. OK, maybe I’m not exactly being quiet about it, since I’m ranting to the world, but I did promise my mom I wouldn’t cuss out Destiny’s mom Lee Ann (names changed to protect the guilty). But I really don’t think that when her daddy, the Reverend Bubba, asks the standard line about objections to the union, that I’ll be able to hold my tongue if I attend the wedding. And I know that making a scene and ruining “her big day” won’t change a thing.

I’m just going to buy her a Costco membership. Possibly also an anonymously mailed case of condoms.

You see, this isn’t my first rodeo intersecting with child marriage.

I was 14 years old, in ninth grade, when the first peer of my cohort got married. Tammy’s mom drove her and her boyfriend to Alabama and signed for them to get married before a judge, because social services was getting ready to take her into foster care for neglect and getting married was a quick route to emancipation.

Child Bride social experiment in NYC

Married they were, and within a year, a baby came along; within two, separation and divorce followed. Tammy had five kids by the time she was old enough to drink, and last I ran into her ex-husband at a friend’s bonfire, he was showing me pictures of their newborn granddaughter. I was in my first trimester with my own first child then, age 32.

Twenty years after Tammy married, I found out my friend Robin’s daughter (born when Robin was 15) was getting married at 16. Her recently ex-stepdad was paying for it, because he wanted to stop having to pay for her health insurance.

I wrote Robin’s daughter an impassioned, multi-page email, begging her not to go through with it, to at least wait a few years. I never got a response. She got married anyway. All I did was alienate her.

The answer isn’t for me to declare my feminist opposition during the ceremony, this branch of my family bush being hyper-religious evangelical conservative super-MAGA Trumpers. They’re also incredibly nice people who really do think they’re doing right by Destiny, I’m sure. The horror of nice, earnest true believers is something to behold, indeed. I hate this, but I still love them.

I wish I could say to Destiny, “All this purity stuff is a steaming load of crap meant to coerce and control you.” My mom thinks she probably just wants to kiss her boyfriend and has no real concept of what she’s getting herself into.

But judges sign off for girls to get married at ages younger than 18 — and sometimes even younger than the state’s age of consent — all over the US, shockingly often. Forty-eight of 50 states allow it in some form; 17 of those have no minimum age set, so a judge can literally sanction the marriage of a couple where he’d otherwise be prosecuting the older spouse for a sex offence if the parents hadn’t been OK with it. Sometimes child brides can’t even legally divorce or seek help at a domestic violence shelter.

A minor can’t sign a gym contract, vote, buy beer, or get into most clubs, but if a judge signs off with the parents’ permission, even a 12-year-old can marry. Let’s call it what it is: backwards and sick.

I’m asking any officials empowered to issue marriage licenses who are reading this today to pledge not to grant marriages to minors. But really, we need to end child marriage loopholes with a strict national ban.

Kamala Harris and Liz Warren, if you’re listening: help me stop the next girl from getting in way over her head.

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