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Efforts to end child marriage face opposition from both sides of political spectrum

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

LAWRENCE — In most states, a minor can be old enough to get married but not old enough to file for divorce. In many states, the legal age to marry is lower than the age of sexual consent.

Such is the shockingly prevalent and perplexing issue of child marriage.

“We’re used to thinking about it as a problem that occurs in other places, particularly India, Africa and parts of the Middle East,” said Nick Syrett, professor and chair of women, gender & sexuality studies at the University of Kansas.

“But it has occurred in the United States since the colonial period, and it continues to happen today.”

Syrett lends his on-camera expertise to the new CBSN Originals series “Speaking Frankly: Child Marriage.” The short documentary (available free on the CBS streaming site) reveals the personal stories of Americans who were forced into matrimony when they were as young as 10 years old. It also focuses on how last year Delaware and New Jersey banned marrying under the age of 18. Advocates are hoping to bring this law to more states, but they’re running into unforeseen opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

The first time New Jersey attempted to pass this law, both the state’s bipartisan House and Senate approved it, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. So they were compelled to wait until Christie was out of office in 2018 for the incoming Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, to approve it.

Christie declared the reason he vetoed it was because it “would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities.”

“He seemed to be nodding to some religious or cultural or ethnic minority that wanted to be able to practice child marriage -- yet no such group had been vocal during the procedures. He definitely was bowing to conservative pressure not to sign off on the bill,” Syrett said.

However, the issue is hardly divided on partisan lines.

As the documentary illustrates, the ACLU and NARAL Pro-Choice America fought back against similar proposed laws in Maryland and California. Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL’s Maryland branch, appears in “Child Marriages” to explain why her organization views it as a “right to choose” matter.

“I understand the logic of what Diana is saying, but there doesn’t have to be a reason that the various things she wants minors to be able to do — like emancipate themselves or have reproductive justice — have to be tied to marriage,” Syrett said.

“We could work to change those laws if we wanted to get kids out of bad foster homes without using marriage. Or to make sure they have access to abortion without using marriage. But it seems striking that they are allowing the current composition of laws to dictate what they would defend, even though we acknowledge that marriage as a minor is probably not a good idea.”

A native of Ontario, Syrett first became interested in the U.S. history of underage marriage when he came across a 1925 study compiled by social workers titled “Child Marriages” that railed against a perceived epidemic sweeping the nation at the time.

He said, “I was surprised by this because I did not think the U.S. had such a history. So that was the first inkling there might be a story here, and it was a way for me to get at questions that interest me about what the purpose of marriage is: Whether marriage protects people, whether people are different after they get married, whether the things they do within marriage are different than the things they do outside of it.”

This led to his third book, “American Child Bride” (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), which positioned Syrett as one of the leading experts on the topic.

He said when first approaching the manuscript, there was no movement afoot to change the marriageable age. Only when finishing it did he realize this was an actual concern taking place right now. That is largely due to many of the activists featured in the documentary who have instigated a national movement.

According to the advocacy group Unchained At Last, more than 200,000 children under the age of 18 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. Of those marriages, 87 percent were girls, and 86 percent of them wedded legal adults.

Syrett will also be seen in the upcoming “Knots: A Forced Marriage Story.” A feature-length documentary by Kate Ryan Brewer, “Knots” utilizes the professor to expound on the legal history of wedlock.

Now in his third year at KU, Syrett considers himself an interdisciplinary historian, having also written extensively on masculinity, fraternities and queer history. His previous books include “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities” (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and “Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present” (New York University Press), a collection of essays he co-edited.

As for the issue of child marriage and its contemporary advocacy, Syrett concedes Delaware and New Jersey have provided a road map for positive change.

“I generally agree with the people who say we might as well make the marriage age 18,” he said.

“I’m also convinced by all the social science evidence that shows people who get married young are unlikely to graduate high school, are likely to get divorced and are in abusive relationships. Age is arbitrary — 18 is a made-up number. It’s just one we use as a marker of adulthood right now. But I don’t see any really compelling reason to make it something other than 18.”

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