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Child marriage on chopping block in some U.S. states

NASHVILLE (BP) — An 11-year-old rape victim in Florida, a 14-year-old ninth-grader in Texas, a sexually abused 16-year-old in Kentucky. They are among thousands of girls forced to marry adult men in the past 50 years under laws permitting such unions in most U.S. states.

“This is not about me. I survived,” 58-year-old Sherry Johnson told CBS news when Florida passed a bill March 9 limiting marriage to those 17 and older. Raped at age 9 and a biological mother at age 10, she was 11 when her own birth mother forced her to marry a man in his 20s, simply by getting a judge’s approval.

Most U.S. states permit marriage before age 18 under certain circumstances, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in 2017, when 27 states had no age limits stipulating how young a child could marry. But a growing number of legislatures are changing the laws, helped by the advocacy of victims like Johnson who have survived their abuse, divorced their husbands and learned to thrive.

Christians should work to protect children from such abuses by teaching the truth of the value of women found in God’s word, said Terri Stovall, dean of Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The days of the church sticking its head in the sand [are] long past,” Stovall told Baptist Press in written comments today (March 14). “Churches should embrace, reinforce, and actively teach the purpose and plan God intends for marriage reflected from His word.

“The church must vocally declare that marriage was created by God as a covenant between one man and one woman for the purpose of communicating the relationship between Him and His people,” she said. “From that foundation, the church can be engaged with its people and community to be aware of what is happening around them and to come to the defense and aid of those who are being harmed.”

Raleigh Sadler, a Southern Baptist who fights sex trafficking and human slavery, is among many freedom advocates who equate child marriage with sex trafficking.

“The [federal] Trafficking Victims Protection Act explains that if someone is engaging in sexual activity while being under the age of 18, federal prosecutors do not have to prove that they were manipulated into the act,” Sadler emailed BP March 13. “By virtue of their age, they have been trafficked.

“With that said, as you can see the child marriage discussion is linked to the human trafficking conversation. If someone is under 18, they can be under the coercive influence of another, whether this be a parent or a boyfriend,” said Sadler, who equips churches to fight sex trafficking through his New York-based ministry Let My People Go. “We as the church should be concerned with child marriage. This isn’t just something happening overseas but something happening in our communities, even in our churches.”

According to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau Annual Social and Economic Supplement survey, married people ages 15-17 totaled 132,000 in the U.S. While many states don’t track child marriage statistics, between 2001 and 2010 at least 3,850 children under the age of 18 married in New York, HRW said in 2017. Between 2000 and 2015 in Florida, HRW counted 16,400 children under age 18 who were married there, 80 percent of them girls.

Florida is the latest state to pass legislation aimed at limiting child marriages. Virginia led the way in passing a law to limit child marriages in 2016, followed in 2017 by California, New York, Texas and Connecticut, although Connecticut still allows marriage for those as young as 16.

Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Missouri are among states where bills limiting child marriage are active in the 2018 legislatures and general assemblies.

The laws have not gone without challenges. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill in March 2017 that would have restricted marriage to those 18 and above, citing religious customs he did not specify, according to news reports. A similar law died in the Missouri legislature in 2017, but a new Missouri bill would limit marriage to those at least 16 years old.

Girls are disproportionately harmed by child marriage, Stovall told BP.

“The reality is even in the U.S., the vast majority of child marriages are not between teenagers, but rather are adults marrying children,” Stovall said. “Further still, many are coerced, forced, manipulated or trafficked. Even those that appear to be consensual, when one looks deeper, the picture painted often reflects more of an adult grooming or taking advantage of a young person.

“As Christians, we have the responsibility to protect the children and not turn a blind eye to anything that harms the children,” she said.