Aided by Law: Child Marriages Persist in Canada and The US

Recent reports show the persistence of child marriage in these countries, enabled by laws and institutions. Why does this remain an issue?

A recent Canadian study found that child marriage “remains legal and persists” across the North American country. More than 3,600 marriage certificates were issued to under-18s between 2000 and 2018, with over 85 percent of marriage certificates granted to girls who were married to much older spouses.

Yet that number is just the tip of the iceberg as more and more child marriages in recent years have been common-law unions – informal arrangements that provide fewer rights, the report found.

This study comes a few years after another investigation found that over 200,000 minors were married in the US between 2000 and 2015, again, with over 87 percent of marriages occurring between girls and adult men.

Child marriage occurs across the world in different countries for reasons that vary from context to context including poverty, customs and local traditions, but media coverage and research overwhelmingly tend to focus on the issue of child marriages in developing countries. In fact, Canada is one of the countries at the forefront of UN efforts to end child marriages. These studies shed some light on the issue in overlooked areas of the globe.

What is child marriage?

Child marriage is any “formal or informal union between a child under the age of 18 with an adult or another child,” according to UNICEF. An informal union includes cohabitation, common-law unions/marriages, and similar forms of living arrangements.

Child marriage is associated with a host of harmful outcomes: girls who marry before 18 are at higher risk of domestic abuse and pregnancy and childbirth complications. Research also shows that they are less likely to remain in school. Overall, they have worse economic and health outcomes compared to girls who don’t marry before the age of 18. These are “eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services,” the UN says.

Why is it still a problem in the US and Canada?

The reasons are many. Part of the issue is lax marriage laws. For instance, Canadian law permits children to marry from the age of 16 with parental consent or court order. In the United States, laws vary from state to state. Only 4 states have a minimum age of 18 with no exceptions. Most states allow marriage under 18 based on parental consent alone, or with judicial approval. 10 states don’t even have a lower age limit.

“Lax statutory exceptions based on parental consent (which can hide parental coercion) or pregnancy (which can be evidence of rape) can facilitate forced marriages and often leave older minors especially unprotected,” according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a US-based NGO that specialises in gender-based violence and tracks marriage laws in the states.

Though one would think judicial review adds some protection, this isn’t the case as judges don’t usually receive child abuse and trauma-informed training that would help in their evaluation process.

Furthermore, “minors are seldom appointed counsel or afforded other rights in those proceedings,” the Tahirih Justice Center continues. “As a result, judges can serve to rubber-stamp parental consent rather than act as independent gatekeepers against the abuse and exploitation of children under the guise of marriage.”

An additional challenge is the rise in informal marriages. About 95 percent of child marriages in Canada were informal as of 2016, compared with less than half in 2006, according to the study

The shift could be in response to growing public disapproval of children entering wedlock, according to the authors. The UN explains that the informality of common unions and similar arrangements, in terms of inheritance, citizenship, social recognition, and legal protection, makes children vulnerable in additional ways.

In Quebec, individuals in common-law unions are not entitled to alimony or property if the union ends, the authors said.

“This raises questions about how best to address the issue,” the authors said in a statement. “Preventing common-law unions among children will require different and innovative approaches that address the deeper motivations for this practice.”

The future of child marriage

Child marriage overall has decreased in the last ten years, but it remains a prevalent issue. Worldwide, an estimated 12 million girls are married every year before the age of 18 – nearly one girl every three seconds. The UN is behind an effort to end child marriage worldwide by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Several challenges remain, however. First, addressing child marriage requires addressing the root causes, which can vary from place to place and pose complex questions. At the same time, the UN reminds us that even though the reasons can change across countries and cultures, “lack of educational opportunities and limited access to health care perpetuate it.”

Furthermore, a growing number of external factors, like climate change and conflict are another hindrance in the efforts against child marriage. UN experts have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade, as families deal with additional economic burdens.

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