Saturday, 22 June, 2024

Child Marriage, American Style

Child Marriage, American Style

P Kharel

Fact at times sounds stranger than fiction just as what is strange in a place gets to be a routine affair elsewhere in a dazzling display of variety. For instance, marriageable age. Eligibility for marriage entails interesting conditions even in industrially advanced countries with a high degree of education and scholars among the most quoted in approval by academics across the world.

Marriages might be made in heaven — or perhaps not. But earthlings wanting to legally tie the knot as early 14 would find the United States the best bet. Although disturbing and rarely discussed at length, the fact stands sterling solid. The big media don’t give it much space as if to avoid an obvious embarrassment and in a display of curious standards. Elsewhere, the practice rightly gets attributed to lack of education and absence of modern orientation.

But what if it happens in the land once hailed as the world’s “melting pot” until the phrase seems to have been hibernating in the page of non-use as features of community identity assumed a new dimension of assertion with deepening definitions and scope? For that matter, “amalgamation” borders on similar condition unless applied to describe earlier periods less prone to much sensitivity.
Media agencies could introduce “Hero” honours like the ones splashed by the CNN television oprganisation to acknowledge individual contributions to various causes.

No fiction
In the United States, girls can legally marry on attaining the age of 16 and parental approval but not with anyone over 20 years old. Though this is not the characteristic in all the 50 states of that country, it is in line with the policies of majority of the states. A handful like Delaware and Minnesota ban minors from marrying.

Were the child marriage provisions similar to the significantly large parts of the superpower nation to happen in a developing country not having good ties with those who cry the loudest against certain outdated adherence, the reaction would have been one of perpetual protest. And the objection would merit wide welcome. A state with an ideologically different strand would also have attracted justified criticism. The same band of critics, however, shy or shrink from applying the sharp edge of their pens when it comes to making candid comments on societies they belong to.
Many economically advanced states in the West and their civic societies support and sympathise with campaigns that are highly critical of child marriage. Why they fail to exhibit similar energy against the outdated practice in the most powerful democracy is bewildering. After all they share numerous common issues and heritage with the US. Thanks to the nature and structure of American federal system, the 50 states make interestingly intriguing study.

California has no minimum age for minors who marry with parental consent. The process, however, entails a review-rigmarole including the meeting of the families of both the wedding parties in a court of law. It also stipulates a 30-day waiting period apparently in anticipation of the effects of a cooling period aimed at allowing the two sides to grasp the full weight of what they are involved in.
Then comes the issue of conjugal consummation. The state law in Mississippi stipulates the age of consent for sex at 21, though girls can marry at 15 years and boys at 17. Call it liberal or lax, the law in North Carolina lures hordes of adult males to the state to marry teenage females they date with. In one of the latest records, two-thirds of the total number of marriage applications registered at least one person under the age of 18 who was not from North Carolina. It is not rare for men well into their 40s flocking to the state, armed with applications for marrying teenage girls.

A study by the International Centre for Research on Women recorded some nearly 9,000 minors listed on marriage licences in North Carolina between 2000 and 2015. As many as 93 per cent of marriage applications the study reviewed between 2000 and 2019 had a minor marrying an adult. There were several other states with similar records. In fact, as many as 93 per cent of marriage applications registered in the first two decades of the new millennium had an adult marrying a minor.

Why such laws exist in a nation that prides itself as exemplary in virtually every sphere and boasts the presence of the biggest, best and brightest is a confounding read. A Congressman was termed the battle lines generational and not partisan. “It was older members — both Democrat and Republicans — that had those personal stories of family members who had been married and it turned out okay.”

In a country where an average year records125,000 rape cases, i.e., more than 2,500 a week. This does not count the breach of statutory age for consensual sex. The issue of child marriage, sadly, is unlikely to be pursued with the vigour it clearly deserves in the eyes of the millions of reformists in the sea of humanity. Numerous organisations originating in Europe and ostensibly devoted to social service and are pro-active in various parts of the developing world seem to be either discouraged or have some other uncomfortable considerations for their conspicuous lack of enthusiasm in taking up such issues in the US.

Or is it that child marriage is acceptable in some regions and totally wrong elsewhere? It might be in tune with the liberal right in the US for an individual to possess a gun without the lengthy process of scrutiny and follow-ups that most other countries across the world have. Or should demographics be the chief consideration for deciding on marriageable age or purely physical conditions? After all, health conditions have averaged significantly better in the recent decades almost everywhere.
At the same time, the voices of those questioning the utility of the very institution of marriage seem to be manifested in a variety of ways, including “live-in partnership”, which seems to be the preferred term to replace “shacking up”. Let’s see what the ensuing times tell about the course ahead.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)