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Marriage does not appear to protect or empower women when they are married as children. Instead, statistics show that early marriage creates a vulnerability for further psychological and health related stress.  


By Aditi Wahi-Singh

TW- Emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Olivia was 15-years-old when her grandmother first told 24-year-old John, “You could marry her. I’d let you marry her.” Olivia and her grandmother always had a tumultuous relationship because Olivia did not follow her grandmother’s strict religious beliefs or values. Though surprised with the offer from her grandmother, Olivia thought that John could be her way out of a stressful living situation with her grandparents, and John had always seemed like a loving partner.

However, soon after Olivia was engaged to John, their relationship started to change. John became very controlling and abusive, and Olivia felt fearful and began to re-think the engagement.   

A short time after the abuse began, with the help of John’s landlady, Olivia entered his apartment and left her engagement ring on his dresser hoping to end their relationship and move forward with her life. But when John found the ring, he was furious – he took Olivia up a hill, pointed to her grandparent’s house and said he would kill her family if she ever tried something like that again. Fearful and without any options, Olivia never dared to leave after that.


Because of California’s law, Olivia’s grandmother was able to go to the courthouse and get her a marriage application without Olivia even being present. Olivia never saw a judge or anyone else whom she could speak to privately to disclose of the abuse, “I felt I had no escape, I was trapped,” Olivia recalls. 

In the summer of 2004, Olivia married John when she was just 16-years old. They were wed in a church in central California. “I remember walking down the aisle with my chin quivering, and lips shaking. I felt faint, wasn’t sure if I could even make it to the altar,” Olivia remembers, “It was nothing like I imaged my wedding day to feel like.”  

Child marriage — defined as marriage between two individuals, at least one of them being a minor under the age of 18 — is legal and occurs throughout California. A minority of child marriages are between two “Romeo and Juliet” teenagers, but child marriages predominantly occur between girls who are minors, and adult men. California’s current law allows minors ages 16-17 to marry with parental consent (only one parent or guardian needed) and minors under 16-years-old to marry with parental consent and a court order, but with no minimum age to marry.    


According to the Census Bureau approximately 60,000 children were married in the U.S. in 2014. California is one of 13 states that does not collect data on child marriages. However, estimates from the Pew Research Center’s analysis of the American Community Survey in California indicate that 5.5 in every 1,000 girls are married prior to the age of 18; ranking California above the national average of young girls being married in the USA.   

According to Unchained at Last, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women rebuild their lives after forced marriages, many child brides are forced into marriages to adults for reasons such as religion, poverty, lack of family stability, unplanned pregnancy and cultural traditions.  Despite even the most well-intentioned marriage of a minor, statistics show that girls married under the age of 18 have less education, poorer health outcomes, and higher incidence of child abuse and domestic violence. 

Marriage does not appear to protect or empower women when they are married as children. Instead, statistics show that early marriage creates a vulnerability for further psychological and health related stress.  

Unfortunately, this was also the case for Olivia. After they were married, John forced Olivia to stop attending school and abused her emotionally, physically and sexually. “One time he got so mad at me,” Olivia recalls, “that he opened my mouth and spit into it. Other times he would beat me with a stick and leave bloody marks and bruises all over my body. I remember this one time I asked him to take me to my grandparents’ house and he said ‘okay,’ so I walked to the car and when we got there, he slammed my head against the car.” Olivia never made it to her grandparents’ house that night, and on occasions when she did, her grandmother sent her right back and told her that leaving her husband was not an option.   


Child brides are often trapped in this cycle, with nowhere to go but back to their husbands. California does not allow girls to enter domestic violence shelters without an adult, so married minors who find themselves in abusive relationships are often unable to escape. As a result, child brides are often trapped in extremely traumatic and hopeless situations that affect the rest of their lives, most before they can even drive a car or vote.  

In addition to abuse, child marriages frequently result in forced pregnancy, with the adult male once again having control over when or how many pregnancies the child bride will have. This was also the case for Olivia. When John decided they should have a child, he told Olivia she was no longer allowed to take birth control, and shortly after, she became pregnant with her son.   

Soon after Olivia became pregnant, her husband died in an accident, leaving Olivia a pregnant widow at the age of 18. Since then, Olivia has worked tirelessly to raise her son and regain control of her life. She is currently working towards her bachelor’s degree and hopes to one day get her PhD. “I will never get my childhood back,” says Olivia,” that was taken away from me the day I was betrothed to John. But, I want to do whatever I can to stop child marriage and save other girls from ever having to go through what I went through.”


In a move to protect minors from coerced and forced child marriages, the California Senate recently passed SB 273 to further strengthen marriage laws in California. The bill will be scheduled for an assembly hearing in the next few weeks. Olivia provided her testimony at the senate hearing and hopes to continue to share her story to save many under-age California girls from being forced to enter a legal contract that has potential to damage their life before they enter adulthood.  

Proponents of SB 273 are working tirelessly to get the bill to the governor’s desk and eventually improve California laws against child marriages. To help support this cause, readers can contact the senators in their district in support of this bill.




Author Bio: Aditi Wahi-Singh is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Southern California (USC). As a graduate student in a field that believes in social justice and dignity and worth of every person, Aditi was appalled to learn that child marriage was an alive and well tradition in the United States. After learning of this public health problem, Aditi and her faculty adviser (Dr. Kristin Zaleski) decided to partner with local organizations and child marriage survivors to help pass a bill to ban child marriage in California.


Featured Image: Pierre Guinoiseau, Creative Commons





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