Arranged Marriage, Forced Marriage and Child Marriage, Right Here in the U.S.A.

Forced Marriage

Photo by Hohum is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Compartmentalization is an essential skill for those who work for social justice. In fields like child welfare, as just one example, we can’t function if we absorb every trauma and consider every injustice to be our personal responsibility. We can’t solve every problem every day, so we put some of those challenges in a box, on a shelf. It’s a healthy, self-protective adaptation, helping to prevent the debilitating effects of vicarious trauma, to the benefit of our families and our clients, too.

Arranged Marriage

I just unpacked one of those boxes. Subjugation and even enslavement of children via forced marriage and arranged marriage had been something to read about and shake your head at, but it was not an issue on the desk of many child and family advocates in our country. This outrageous exploitation of children was a feature of third world societies, of almost primitive peoples who hadn’t attained enlightenment. Thank goodness we were different, a noble and moral society that understood the special vulnerability of our precious children. Then I read this piece by Fraidy Reiss.

Ms. Reiss would be writing this post herself, had she not been inundated with responses to her New York Times op-ed. NACC is reaching out to her and her organization, Unchained at Last, as have so many others, and we hope to bring her expertise directly to you down the line. In the meantime, know that arranged marriage – a euphemism for forced marriage and coerced marriage for children below the age of consent – is quite common in our own U. S. of A. Tahirih Justice Center, which works with immigrant populations, has documented 3,000 such coercive “unions” in just a two-year period. In one case, a 25-year-old man was allowed to “marry” a 12-year-old girl, and in another, a 10-year-old boy was handed over to an 18-year-old woman.

How does this happen? Most states do not explicitly ban such “marriages”, and typically they happen through exceptions to laws making marriage a matter for adults only. Either through parental consent or judicial approval, adults of any age can marry an elementary school student. It isn’t hard to see that these mechanisms are used for far more troubling situations than Romeo-and-Juliet love affairs between, say, a 16 year old and a 17 year old. Whether purely for financial gain, to protect some notion of family honor, or to advance a family’s social status, parents regularly waive the minimum age requirement. No investigation is undertaken to determine whether such child marriages are healthy or even safe for the child involved. Judges in many states also have the power to enable the marriage of a child to an adult, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the case.

Take this one off the shelf. Children are being handed over, even sold, to adults of any age. In our country. It’s time to listen to Fraidy Reiss, herself a survivor of forced marriage, and to help her help our children.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Kendall Marlowe

Kendall is the Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, the national advocacy organization of attorneys and other professionals representing children and families in child welfare, juvenile justice and custody cases. Kendall served as Chief of the Bureau of Operations and as Deputy Director for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, where he was also spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Governor’s Long Term Care Reform Task Force. Kendall grew up in a family that welcomed six adolescent foster youth, has been a foster and adoptive parent himself, and worked as a social worker with at-risk, homeless and foster youth on Chicago’s south side. He holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where he received the Wilma Walker Honor Award; and a J.D. and Certificate in Child and Family Law from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where he was an Honorary Child Law Fellow.

1 Comment
  1. It is interesting for me to learn a little bit about arranged marriages and how that affects divorces. I can see how this causes a lot of divorces. I think that it is important to have free will when choosing a person you are going to live with and be married to.

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