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BANSAL: Ending child marriage begins with America

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Child marriage is a global issue, one that spans from places in Asia, Africa and even here in the United States. Young girls are mainly the victims of child marriage, often forced to wed men twice their age. In Eastern cultures, families marry their young daughters off in hopes of gaining some kind of honor, or sometimes for financial reasons. If a family cannot afford to send the daughter to school, give her an education, or provide for her, in many cases she is married off as a solution. Sometimes it’s not just a solution, but their ultimate fate. In many societies, from the minute a young girl is born, she is destined to be someone’s wife.

Child marriages in places like Chad, South Sudan and Bangladesh are well-known. Most of us here read about child marriage cases, a sad story on Facebook or Twitter about a 13-year-old girl forced to marry and bear children to a 40-year-old man. We scroll on, continuing with our lives because it’s an issue for someone else to solve. This mindset is what allows the rate of child marriage among girls in Niger to be 76 percent. The world is okay with knowing that 47 percent of Indian girls are illegally married before turning 18 because it’s not our problem. As a society, we need to be more active and preventative in stopping girls all over the globe from losing their rights. Proactive mindsets wouldn’t let children lose all hope of their futures.

Young girls that are married off before they even turn 15 are often stuck in these marriages. There is no way out. The families they marry into are often abusive, physically and emotionally, trapping them in their homes, instilling perpetual fear among the new brides. With no escape, these girls often lose all their independence, confidence, and individuality.

What isn’t known, shockingly, is the rate of child marriage here in the United States. We look at young brides to be a problem of the Eastern world, just another issue that “third-world countries” need to fix. However, this mindset is what has allowed legal child marriages to seep into America’s culture. Girls as young as 12, maybe even younger, are legally wed to men, usually much older, for a number of reasons. As of 2014, almost 58,000 kids from ages 15-17 were married. In New York, around 3,800 children were married in the past decade. A state in worse conditions, Virginia, has allowed almost 4,500 children as young as 13 to be married as of 2013. Of course, all across America, as well as other nations, most child marriages target girls, stripped of their independence.

America’s child brides often come from immigrants of cultures that condone their daughters being married at such young ages, sometimes as a punishment for being in relationships or acting out of character. Other American child marriages occur in pregnancy situations, where girls as young as 11 or 12 are faced with this situation then forced by their families or communities to marry their rapists. This can easily be prevented by issuing the right legislation, getting the American population to care about international as well as national issues concerning child marriage. Unfortunately, nine states still allow legal pregnancy exceptions to the marriageable age. Although progress is being made, it’s not nearly enough, since New Hampshire just released legislation that gives an exception to pregnant minors to be legally married. Rather than fulfill the intent of this legal bill of protecting young girls, this legislation takes away their independence completely. This bill allows a loophole for 11 year old children to be forced by their families and by society to be married to their rapists before even finishing middle school.

Changing the nationwide apathy towards the issue at hand is the first step to preventing more young girls from losing their chance at a real childhood. Together we can stop the 248,000 child marriages that have occurred in America in the past decade. We need to end child marriages across the world, starting with our own country. Young girls shouldn’t be destined as brides, but as individual children, each with a chance at becoming something great, discovering something great.

Priyanka Bansal is a Rutgers Business School first-year double majoring in business and journalism and media studies. Her column, “Call for Change,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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