RALEIGH, N.C. – Researchers on Monday said underage marriage is linked to a host of problems throughout a person's life.
A new report from the International Center for Research on Women estimates nearly 8,800 minors were listed on marriage license applications between 2000 and 2015, putting North Carolina fourth in the number of child marriages in the United States. Although state law generally prohibits marriage until age 18, a person can get married at 16 with their parents' permission, and at age 14 by court order if they or their partner are pregnant. The ICRW noted this ties North Carolina with Alaska for the lowest minimum statutory marriage age in the country.
For Kentucky native Donna Pollard, getting married while still a minor simply traded one abusive relationship for another.
After growing up in an abusive household, she was sent to a behavioral health facility at age 14. A mental health technician there began grooming her for marriage. Her mother agreed to the match, and by age 16, Donna was married to a 31-year-old man. Her marriage meant she was legally emancipated from her mother, but her underage status meant she couldn't access the resources normally extended to abused women.
“The emancipation itself was meaningless, and my husband, as the adult in the situation, truly had all of the power,” she says.
Pollard dropped out of high school during that marriage.
Lyric Thompson, the ICRW's senior policy and advocacy director and one of the lead authors of the study, says that's pretty common. She says research shows girls who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to complete college. They also are 23 percent more likely to develop diabetes or cancer or have a heart attack or a stroke. Moreover, Thompson says marriages under the age of 18 almost never involve two people of similar age. In 93 percent of the North Carolina cases she reviewed, one of the partners was an adult.
In North Carolina, marriage licenses are the responsibility of the county register of deeds. Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, who worked with ICRW on the study, says state law gives registers very little leeway to approve or deny marriage licenses. State law specifies the criteria one must meet, and if they meet them, the license has to be approved.
“We need North Carolina legislators to give us some more protection in protecting the children who come into our office who, we can't easily determine if they want to get into a lifelong marriage or not,” he says.
Reisinger says registers are able to deny marriage licenses in cases that are clearly problematic. Just before Thanksgiving last year, a 49-year-old Kentucky man brought his 17-year-old girlfriend into Reisinger's office to request a marriage license. After questioning the girl about her life situation and learning she had never had a job, had never lived outside the home, and had not completed high school, Reisinger asked the couple to come back after the girl turned 18.
Pollard was eventually able to escape her marriage. She went back to school, got a business degree, and worked in a corporate job for 13 years before founding a nonprofit that focuses on helping survivors of domestic and sexual violence. She and Thompson say the best way for state lawmakers to address the child marriage issue is to eliminate the exceptions that allow for marriage under the age of 18.