I’m trying to imagine a Colorado bank approving a 30-year home mortgage for a 15-year-old. Or an agency authorizing an adoption of an infant by a 14-year-old. Or a 13-year-old hiring a divorce attorney.
OK, those images are absurd. After all, you have to be 16 to get a driver’s license, 18 to vote.
And yet, in Colorado and 17 other states, children can be legally married to a man or woman over 21. Since 2006, at least 2,240 marriage licenses were issued in Colorado to couples where at least one person was under 18, many 15 years old or younger.
In so many ways, that’s not just absurd, it’s unconscionable.
“In terms of the whole development of the brain, adolescence is such an important time,” said Joanne Belknap, professor of criminology and social justice at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s the time when we are determining who we are outside of our parents and what our beliefs are versus those of everyone around us.”
It’s when we begin to establish what is trendily referred to as “agency.”
If boys or, most often, girls get married before achieving that all-important sense of self, Belknap said, “It places them in impossible situations.”
It’s something we’ve learned from the stories of victims of pedophile priests. A lot of predators are very good at grooming children who are eager to please. At the time, the children often think the relationship is consensual — even flattering — only to feel horrified years later when they realize how they were manipulated and abused.
“Add to that the cases in which somebody is really marginalized by society by their gender, class or race, and you see how damaging this kind of thing can be,” Belknap explained. “The children are convinced this is someone who is going to protect them and be their savior when in fact they have been chosen because they have no power, no agency.
“It’s because they are easier to control.”
If you look at laws around marriage, Belknap notes that they are founded on our culture’s lurid history of racism and sexism.
“The racist laws were designed to punish and exclude,” she said, referring to the anti-miscegenation laws that were declared unconstitutional only in 1967.
Sexist laws, such as those that restricted women’s power and access to divorce, were enacted under the pretense that they were protecting women, Belknap said, “when, in fact, they did no such thing.”
Think about it. It doesn’t matter how young a child bride is, if her husband goes on a spending spree and takes off, she’s responsible for the mess he leaves behind. She can end up homeless, in serious debt and psychologically damaged.
Meanwhile, for her husband, the marriage certificate is a get-out-of-jail-free card for charges of statutory rape, and it’s all too common for that to be a key motivating factor in the marriage proposal.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the International Planned Parenthood Federation have urged countries including the United States to end child marriage.
In its Guide for Global Policy Action, the IPPF states, “Child marriage remains a widely ignored violation of the health and development rights of girls and young women. … It is one of the most persistent forms of sanctioned sexual abuse of young girls and young women.”
The Economist reported this year that “Married children are twice as likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be beaten by spouses than are married adults. Around 50 percent more of them drop out of high school, and they are four times less likely to finish college. They are at considerably higher risk of diabetes, cancer, stroke and other physical illnesses. And they are much more likely to suffer from mental-health problems.”
I know, I know. Gnarly children’s rights and consent issues are at play here. Children need access to health care even in cases where their parents disagree. Desperate family situations exist where children under 18 may need to be emancipated for their own safety.
But honestly, Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch notes that Afghanistan has tougher laws on child marriage than does Colorado.
That says it all.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.@dccarman