Child marriage is still legal in California. It requires the consent of just one parent through a court order. Many of these marriages are between young girls to men significantly older than them, making way for gender-based violence within the marriage.
Dawn Tyree got married in California at 13 to her abuser. He was 32. When she was 11, her parents left her in the hands of the man when they started their business in Texas. He brainwashed her into thinking that what they shared was love.
DAWN TYREE: At that time, at 13 years old, I could see clearly that society valued the life of a man over, you know, a woman... over a girl. Like his future and his life was more important than mine.
Dawn is still grappling with her childhood trauma.
TYREE: In the times where the abuse is happening, there is kind of this disconnect where it’s almost like an out of body where, you know, I’m dissociating so I don’t have to be fully present during the abuse.
Global Hope 365 is an organization which is working actively towards eliminating child marriage. They advocate for a “No Child Marriage under eighteen no exception” resolution which has been passed in several cities in California. They are also working for changes in legislation at the state level.
Rima Nashishibi, founder of the organization, says that this topic shocks even lawmakers.
RIMA NASHISHIBI: Most of a good number of them are not aware of the fact that it’s legal because we meet with elected officials, and some of them don’t know that child marriage is still legal, so you have to raise awareness among the general public and elected officials.
Nashashibi has also observed that some officials think that the only recourse for pregnant girls is marriage. She talked about the effect child marriage has on a person’s mind.
NASHISHIBI: Survivor of child marriage tells us that even till today, she has nightmares, she’s still going to therapy even till today. She was married at 16 and she’s in her mid-50s.
As well as the effect it has on the body.
NASHISHIBI: There’s a higher percentage of sexually transmitted diseases, infant and maternal mortality, because the girl’s body is not fully developed yet, so there’s a higher rate of either maternal mortality or infant mortality or poor health in general because she had to get pregnant at such an early age. And then because you don’t get that education, you don’t get vocational training. So most end up living in a poverty situation because of the lack of education and the lack of vocational training and it’s going to take them longer to rebuild their lives.
Child marriage is not happening to a few people. More than 300,000 child marriages took place in the United States from 2000 to 2018.
As a child, Sara Tasneem wanted to join the U.S. Air Force Academy but when she turned 15, her father forced her to marry a 28-year-old stranger.
SARA TASNEEM: I was 15 years old when I was forced to marry. My father introduced me to a man in the morning and I was married to him that same evening.
She says he raped her and she got pregnant right away.
TASNEEM: At 16 and pregnant, I there was no way for me to get out of this marriage. I was basically... I mean, when I look back at it, I was a kidnap victim. A lot of that time period is kind of numb for me. I don’t really remember a feeling a lot because I think that was part of the the trauma.
She theorized why the laws are not changing yet in California.
TASNEEM: We’re allowing children to get married and in the state of California at any age with parental consent and judicial review. So it’s extremely troubling to think that people would continue to justify this today. It is pedophilia. If you look at the statistics today, the majority of children who are getting married are girls and they’re marrying adult men. And many of those marriages skirt around statutory rape laws and age of consent laws. And so that is really clear in my mind that that these laws are extremely sexist and biased against women.
The work of survivor advocates and activists have seen several milestones till date.
They have been able to set the minimum age for marriage to 18 in six states. However, child marriage is still legal in 44 states in the United States. While the journey towards a total abolition of the practice is long, these victories inspire them to keep going.