Growing up, I had the same dream many little girls do—of a wedding full of love, pretty flowers, and a mermaid gown. For me, however, reality was anything but a fairy tale: I became a bride at age 13, a child getting a life sentence to serve my sexual abuser.
Last year, I provided testimony to the Legislature of the (U.S.) Virgin Islands in favor of setting the age limit for marriage at 18—with no exceptions. The measure closed existing legal loopholes that allowed children as young as 14 to marry. My testimony and that of other survivors of child marriage helped push the law through the Legislature.
I had begun research into child marriage more than a year earlier when I felt moved to begin exploring what had happened to me. Until then, I believed that mine was an isolated incident, that there must have been some special reason a judge would allow me, at 13, to marry a 32-year-old man. I realize now that our legal system had failed to protect me.
My investigations into child marriage across the country crushed me. According to Unchained At Last, the nonprofit organization leading the historic national movement to end this human rights abuse, between 2000 and 2010 nearly 250,000 minors were married in the U.S. Most were young girls, like I had been, married to adult men.
Child marriage, it turned out, was legal in all 50 states. The U.S. Department of State calls forced marriage human rights abuse and, in the case of minors, a form of child abuse.
In the past, when people heard my story, they would often ask me if I came from a religious cult. The answer is no. My parents were not religious at all. The truth is, child marriage stretches across all economic, social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. It knows no moral compass. I realized that I could use my voice and story with purpose by teaming with Unchained At Last to fight against this abuse of children’s rights.
Through outreach, media exposure, and persistence, we helped change child marriage laws in Delaware and New Jersey, both of which closed the loopholes and set a minimum marriage age of 18—also with no exceptions. Although it continues to be legal in 48 states, several strong bills are pending across the U.S.
Child marriage laws vary by state, and 13 do not track such data at all. Several, like California, do not even have a minimum age for marrying, which means a 9-year-old child can get married with just one parent’s consent.
In my case, my father’s signature was all the court needed to hand me off—even before I entered middle school—to the nanny who had raped me and gotten me pregnant.
In June 2018, shortly after I began this process of discovery, my story was published in The New York Times. While some of the reaction from it hurt, I felt that I had accomplished my mission: My story had reached so many and served to educate and promote social change. I was inspired by the results, and through multiple media exposures, I connected with other child marriage survivors. We have become support for one another.
In December 2018, we launched the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States, which continues to lobby for change. Last fall, for example, I met with lawmakers in Alaska to try to change the law there. By speaking out in my own voice, I have found freedom and healing.
While it’s easy for legislators to think they’ve created safety nets to protect minors in such marriages, the truth is, some of these “safety nets” increase the risk of violence toward these minors. For example, when a petition is made for a marriage license between a minor and an adult, a court-mandated investigation by child protective services is conducted to ensure that the minor is not being pressured into the marriage.
But this approach is not effective at identifying coercion. I had been pressured, at 13, into marrying my rapist. There was absolutely no way I would have disclosed this or outed my family to a stranger. Girls, especially, will not contest their parent’s authority.
I was 16 when I finally summoned the strength to get myself and my two toddlers out of that loveless marriage. But other young girls are not so fortunate. As minors, these girls are turned away from shelters, unable to hire a lawyer, unable to lease an apartment, buy a car, or finish school. I remember the grief I felt on my wedding day when I realized I would not be going back to school. The reality that this man owned me began to set in. Fear, along with lack of parental support, is what keeps girls trapped in these marriages sometimes for decades, and they never fully recover.
If we continue to shine a light on this subject and educate our community, I believe we can successfully end this form of human rights abuse before 2030. A lack of awareness and archaic laws are the only impediments to our success.
Dawn Tyree wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Dawn is a writer, an activist and a founding member of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage in the United States. Her story has been told in an A&E documentary and published in over twelve languages.