UnChained At Last: The United States’ Child Marriage Problem webinar reflection

By Cate Cox

On June 17th, UnChained At Last held their webinar, “The United States’ Child Marriage Problem.” Founded by a survivor of forced marriage, Fraidy Reiss, UnChained At Last is the only U.S.-based organization working to end forced and child marriages through direct advocacy and services. During this webinar, they explored their work and research into ending child marriage. At this event, they were joined by advocate Chelsea Clinton, author and influencer Blair Imani, bipartisan state Senators Julia Salazar (New York) and Katrina Shealy (South Carolina), Dr. Yvette Efevbera of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and survivor and advocate Patricia Abatemarco.

Globally, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. In a study conducted by UnChained At Last, they found that between 2000-2018 approximately 300,000 children were married across the United States, the majority of whom were underaged girls marrying adult men. The marriages documented involved girls as young as 10 years old. Also, 60,000 of all documented marriages involved a couple where the age difference between the two would constitute statutory rape if they were not married. Child marriage predicates a multitude of physical and mental health issues: abuse, lack of education, and poverty. Yet, public understanding of the severity of child marriage in the U.S. is very limited. 

Like many types of gender-based violence, including female genital cutting (FGC), child marriage in the U.S. is upheld through complicated systems of patriarchy, economic survival strategies, cultural norms, and legislative inaction. Both Senators Salazar and Shealy agreed that culture and shame are a major cause of the continuation of the practice. Within communities with a history of child marriage, many are unable to understand the multi-layered harms of this practice, and many survivors say their parents forced them into marriages to avoid communal shame from pregnancy or rape. These notions of shame and cultural necessity undermine many forms of gender-based violence, forcing girls to sacrifice their autonomy and future or risk ostracization. 

Yet, the thousands of girls forced into marriage across the U.S. are often unable to access support services to escape dangerous situations. Being underage, in many states they cannot hire a lawyer, file for divorce, go to a domestic violence shelter, file a protective order, and other life-saving support systems if they become trapped in abusive situations. The irony of this is astounding, girls are old enough to be wives but not to be divorced. This loophole traps girls in cycles of violence and destroys families.  

At the beginning of this webinar, UnChained At Last shared their heart-wrenching video: The Girls You Have Destroyed, filmed by survivors of child marriage. By highlighting the stories of survivors (not unlike the Voices to End FGM/C videos by Sahiyo) they were able to show the real impact of this issue and highlight its deeply personal effects on women and girls. 

UnChained At Last staffers explained that they are working state-by-state to outlaw the practice of child marriage, since only five states including New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, have an outright ban on marriages involving persons under-18. There is no federal law against it. In order to push for legislative change, the approach of Sahiyo and other organizations to outlaw FGC in the United States mirrors that of UnChained At Last. Both are using a state-by-state approach, while simultaneously pushing for legislation at the federal level. While there is now a federal law, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, and 40 states with state-specific laws, it took the tireless work of activist across the U.S. to implement the most, seemingly inarguable, protections for girls against FGC. 

In better news, UnChained At Last found that the number of child marriages in the U.S. decreases every year. However, the speakers still stressed the continued importance of raising awareness about this issue. They highlighted that while U.S. foreign policy may condemn child marriage as a human rights abuse, we still allow it to be practiced on our soil. Speaker Blair Imani explained that the notion that child marriage is a “far away problem that requires faraway solutions” is one of the major barriers to addressing this issue in the U.S. 

While watching this webinar, I could not help but notice the similarities between the work to end child marriage and our work here at Sahiyo to end female genital cutting (FGC). From the intergenerational norms to the dismissal of the issue as a foreign phenomenon, the problems at hand are very similar. Both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last have struggled to make people aware of the severity of these issues within the U.S., and the urgency to address them. While discussing legislative action, one of the speakers in the UnChained webinar remembered speaking to a state legislature who told her, “Is it really that bad if a girl marries her rapist?” I was immediately drawn back to similar arguments advocates against FGC have heard such as, “It’s just a prick,” or, “It’s not that bad.” The severe harms caused by FGC and child marriage to women and girls are routinely dismissed, and survivors are left without support systems. 

At the same time both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last stress the importance of uplifting survivors’ voices, both for their personal healing and to create legislative change. Through tireless work, they and Sahiyo are making the world a safer place for girls, and are championing a world free of violence against women. 

You can watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKlqmMqePks 

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