What is forced marriage?
The fact that others seek to exert an influence over a marriage decision does not mean that the decision isn’t made freely. However, if someone agrees to a marriage because of threats or violence, psychological manipulation, emotional blackmail, or deception, that has crossed the line. For example, if a person agrees to marry only because of threats of destitution or deportation should they refuse, that marriage can be said to be forced. If a woman is threatened to be cut off from her family and community should she refuse the match her parents or religious leader have chosen, that’s force.
The Tahirih Justice Center (link below) found approximately 3000 cases of forced marriage in the United States between 2009-2011. This is most common within closed ethnic or religious communities, including ultra- Orthodox Jewish communities.
A child (defined usually as under 18) has less ability to resist pressures to marry than an adult. A child is likely to be completely dependent on parents or other adults for basic necessities, so is less able to defy them. Children are usually unable to retain an attorney or file for legal actions such as divorce. They cannot access domestic violence shelters. For these reasons, any marriage involving a child may be similar to forced.
Most states set the minimum marriage age at 18, but allow parents or a judge to permit 16 or 17 year olds to marry. Twenty five states set no minimum age with a judge’s approval, meaning that children can be married before they are even legally able to consent to sex. Between 2000-2010 about 248,000 children under 18 were married in the United states, 13, 14, and 15 year olds among them. Most were girls married off to much older men.
Child Marriage in the Torah
According to Torah law, a father has the right to marry off his minor daughter. This is implied by the verse, ‘If the father of the girl shall say to the elders, I have given my daughter to this man. . . (Deuteronomy 22:16).’ Nevertheless, the rabbis decreed against this. Maimonides writes: Even though a father has the right to marry off his daughter while she is a minor, it is not proper for him to do so. Rather, the rabbis decree that a father should not marry off his daughter until she has grown and says ‘This is the man I wish to marry.’ So too, it is not proper for a man to marry an underage girl (Laws of marriage 3:19).
Organizations Working to End Forced Marriage
Unchained at Last is a non profit organization working to help women and girls in the United States escape forced marriage and rebuild their lives. It also advocates for legal changes to end child marriage. Unchained was founded by Friady Reiss, profiled to the right.
The Tahirih Justice Center is a non- profit organization whose goal is to protect immigrant women and girls from gender based violence. Tahirih provides assistance to individuals in need, and also advocates for legal change to end forced and child marriage, along with sex trafficking and other issues.
Fraidy Reiss was raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in New York. At the age of 19 she was trapped in an arranged marriage to an abusive husband. In her thirties she was able to get a divorce. Now she has left that community and founded Unchained at Last.
How Prevalent Is Child Marriage in the United States?
Human Rights Watch Report on child marriage in Florida along with other places.
Tahirih report on forced marriage in the United States.
Information on child marriage in the United States from Girls Not Brides.
Human Rights Haggadah Blog
The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but houses approximately 25% of the world’s prisoners. The confinement of such a vast number of