SEXUAL mores change faster than the law does. This has been the case with child marriage, which is generally defined as involving those under 18 but also includes girls (for almost all of them are girls) younger than 16. Depending on the law in different states, older men are allowed to marry minors if they get parental consent, a judge’s approval, or even just the nod of a clerk. Stories about the Republican candidate for the vacant Alabama senate seat, Roy Moore, and his pursuit of teenage girls when he was more than double their age have caused disgust, at least among those who believe the accusers. Legally, though, Mr Moore could almost certainly have married even his 14-year-old accuser had he wished to do so, since at the time 14 was the minimum age for marriage under Alabama state law (it is now 16).
America has always allowed such child marriages, which happen mostly in conservative religious communities and rural areas. Yet, as in the rest of the world, the practice has become much less common. Whereas 23,500 minors got married in 2000, by 2010 the number had dropped to a little over 9,000, reflecting changing social norms, higher rates of school attendance for girls and a decline in marriage more generally. Virginia, Texas and New York have introduced laws in the past couple of years that restrict marriage to legal adults. Connecticut has banned marriage before the age of 16. In 11 other states legislation restricting child marriage is in the pipeline; six of these (Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) are considering a law to ban marriage under 18 with no exceptions.
Still, it remains startling that between 2000 and 2015 more than 207,000 minors got married, according to an investigation by Frontline, a public television programme. More than two-thirds of them were 17, but 985 were only 14 and ten were just 12. Human Rights Watch and other activists are campaigning for a simple solution for all states, which would end the patchwork of rules and loopholes: changing the age of marriage to 18, with no exception granted. Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Centre, an advocacy group, concedes that there is a big difference between a girl of 14 and a girl of 17, but she points out that both have similar legal status. Neither bride could stay in any kind of shelter, for instance, if she wanted to escape. And neither could file for divorce, work legally or sign a rental lease.
Surprisingly, opponents of a ban on child marriage can be found across the political spectrum. On the right some libertarians and religious conservatives argue that marriage should be a choice made apart from the state; that married minors can reduce the number of single mothers on welfare; and that religious customs and practices need to be protected. On the left, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have also defended the practice in the past because banning it would intrude on the right to marry.
Despite these arguments against a federal law, the federal government has been a staunch campaigner against child brides in the developing world. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, went on an 11-day tour of Africa. After meeting Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, a campaigner against child marriage, Mrs Clinton affirmed America’s commitment to ending the practice. Marriage before the age of 18, she said, means girls are less likely to get an education and “more likely to encounter life-threatening health problems, which short-changes and short-cuts them and sometimes their lives.”
Africa has made progress since Mrs Clinton’s visit. This year Malawi banned marriage under 18. Gambia and Tanzania both outlawed it in 2016. For good or ill, developing countries see America as a role model. When Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch researched a report on child marriage in Nepal, several Nepalese asked her why they should abolish child marriage when it was allowed in America.