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Child, not bride: Minnesota should outlaw marriage under age 18

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

In 2017 I read an article about child marriage, a situation I assumed occurred only in countries like Thailand or Nigeria. I was surprised and horrified to read that nearly 250,000 children in the United States were married between the years 2000 and 2010. That number includes an estimated 2,500 children in Minnesota. These marriages cut across all socio-economic and demographic groups.

I didn’t believe this — but it’s true.

Most of those children, with “child” legally defined as a person under age 18, were girls, and most of those girls were married to older men. Under Minnesota law, it is illegal to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old child if the perpetrator is more than 4 years older than the child and in a position of authority. Without the cover of marriage, most of the resulting sexual relationships in these child marriages would constitute the crime of statutory rape. However, that very same conduct is legal if the victim and the perpetrator are married.

Child marriages happen for many reasons: economic, social, religious, or cultural pressures by families; as a “solution” to unplanned pregnancies; and to legalize a relationship that otherwise might result in an investigation by child protection services or to avoid a criminal indictment, essentially forcing a victim to marry her rapist.


In Minnesota, a child’s parent or legal guardian must petition the courts for a minor to be married. Judges are given wide discretion and usually grant the marriage licenses, generally being very reluctant to oppose the parent who brings a child in to be married.

This is a travesty.

Girls who marry as children, compared to those who marry at 18 or older, are:

  • 3 times more likely to be beaten by their spouses
  • 31% more likely to live in poverty
  • 50% more likely to drop out of high school
  • 23% more likely to have a heart attack, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and psychiatric disorders
  • 50% more likely to get divorced.


 A married child under age 18 cannot:

  • Get a divorce
  • Rent an apartment
  • Buy or rent a car
  • Get health care or check into a hospital
  • Open a bank account
  • Have access to an inheritance
  • Get a credit card
  • Stay at a battered women’s shelter

A married child cannot help herself or her children.

In 2019, Minnesota Sen. Sandy Pappas and Rep. Kaoly Her led legislation to end all child marriage in Minnesota. Her, whose father refused an offer to have her marry while she was still a young teen, said, “We cannot let a practice that reduces a girl’s chance of success, happiness, security, and safety continue. We are the adults who know better, so we should protect our children.”

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
The bill passed unanimously in the Minnesota House of Representatives – in about 90 seconds, with no questions, hesitations, or reservations. Minnesota’s House members loudly affirmed that girls are children, not brides.

However, the bill stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Warren Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to give it a hearing, even saying to a group of law students, “If a Hmong father wants to marry off his teen-age daughter to an older man for a good dowry, who am I to stand in his way?”

In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey ended all child marriage. Ten more states are likely to pass similar bills in 2020.

In Europe, marriage under age 18 is prohibited in Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Among other countries with a similar restriction: Tanzania, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Ethiopia. The UN Sustainable Development Goal is to end child marriage in all countries by 2030.

On Thursday, Feb. 13 —  at 2:30 p.m., in the Press Room, B971 at the Minnesota State Capitol — Pappas will hold a press conference about ending child marriage in Minnesota. Joining her at the microphone will be a child marriage survivor; Rep. Her; Rose Roach, executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association; Claire Willett, Eden Prairie High School student and Ferencz youth fellow in human rights and law at World Without Genocide; and Fraidy Reis, executive director of Unchained at Last, a national organization advocating against child marriage. The public is invited to attend.

Support the bill in Minnesota for child, not bride: SF 1393.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

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Comments (34)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/07/2020 - 03:49 pm.

    That Limmer quote is appalling. Good lord.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/07/2020 - 06:04 pm.

    What??? Someone can get married but can’t get divorced???

  3. Submitted by lisa miller on 02/07/2020 - 10:47 pm.

    So if a judge is allowing a child to be married to avoid an investigation by child protection isn’t the law then complicit in endangering the child? So much for all the talk by DHS and the counties about safety reform. Good grief, pass the bill already.

  4. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 02/08/2020 - 09:07 am.

    Older men still skirting the laws without consequence and calling all the shots, to the peril of us all. Remove them all from their positions of authority and power and level the playing field. They have only looked out for themselves, while limiting and often abusing the rest of us. So understand our power of the vote and exercise your rights while protecting these child brides until they too can exercise their power of the vote. And remember that this can only happen in a democracy, which in the USA is being destroyed more daily by those in power. We lose our democracy we lose EVERYTHING.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/08/2020 - 11:24 am.

    Well, at least no one is calling the writer a racist for opposing what is obviously a cultural difference which we in America welcome into our melting pot–don’t we?

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/08/2020 - 05:09 pm.

      As it has been noted above, child marriage among fundamentalist Christians is a greater problem in the U.S. than anything any other religious or ethnic group is doing.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/09/2020 - 10:03 pm.

        Looking for cites for the noted comment above. 207,000 child brides in the US 2003-2018 divided by 15 years divided by 50 states is about 275 child brides per year. Could be a solution looking for a problem. As an American society we encourage all faiths and cultures so we should consider those beliefs before imposing fading Anglo beliefs on our increasingly diverse population. Christianity is fading in this country daily so the Christian influence will soon be a non-factor. We should also consider our GLBT population as their wishes should become more and more accepted.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/10/2020 - 11:06 am.

          “Fading Anglo beliefs”?

          How about established medical beliefs, such as the fact that childbirth is more dangerous for a teen than for a woman in her twenties?

          How about secular beliefs, such as “an older man who wants to marry a teen-ager is probably looking for someone who will be easy to boss around and even abuse”?

          • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/10/2020 - 12:01 pm.

            He’s just liberal-baiting – running out a list of what he sees as “typical” liberal viewpoints and trying to showcase what he sees as their absurdities by twisting them into supposed justifications in support of the practice of child marriage.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/10/2020 - 11:49 am.

          https://www.salon.com/2018/03/11/banning-child-marriage-in-america-an-uphill-fight-against-evangelical-pressure/

          Senator Limmer, who killed the bill, is a conservative Christian. He is being disingenuous by suggesting it is about Hmong practices as is anyone who suggests this a cultural issue. Its conservative Christians that are keeping child marriage alive is this country.

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/10/2020 - 11:00 pm.

            Cites please, showing that no Muslim or no Hmong citizens have allowed their children to be married in the State of Minnesota. Disingenuous? Perhaps not.

            • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/11/2020 - 08:30 am.

              Cites, please, showing where Pat Terry specifically claimed that no Muslim or no Hmong citizens have allowed their children to be married in the State of Minnesota.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/11/2020 - 09:43 pm.

              Oh, I am sure there have been some child marriages among those groups. I never said otherwise. Its mostly a Christian issue and the political muscle behind fighting bans comes entirely from segments of the Christian right.

              • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/12/2020 - 12:42 am.

                Thank you for your clarification, especially for reader Berg. As to whether any fighting bans come ENTIRELY from the right we’ll have to see if any other Muslim or Hmong poster comes to the defense of their position, or whether they trust that the U.S. Constitution allows them freedom of religion.

                • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/12/2020 - 12:32 pm.

                  Freedom of religion is not absolute. It does not, or at least should not, supersede laws against raping children.

  6. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/08/2020 - 03:30 pm.

    Nationwide, bills to ban – or even put strict limits on – child marriage have been blocked by fundamentalist Christians. Their argument is that they oppose limiting the rights of parents to dictate what happens in their children’s lives. The rights of children are not on the radar.

    Senator Limmer’s professed cultural concerns are just so much b.s.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/09/2020 - 10:06 pm.

      “The rights of children are not on the radar.” Pro-Life citizens everywhere cheer your statement as it is absolute truth. Bravo!

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2020 - 08:59 am.

        So-called “pro life citizens” are, in reality, anti-abortion, or anti-choice. The “pro life” label they claim is, at best, misleading.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/10/2020 - 10:57 pm.

          Anti-abortion, pro-not killing babies. Semantics. Same idea, and pretty simple. Including anti-euthanasia and anti-death penalty. Pro-life seems to be pretty accurate.

          • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/13/2020 - 09:10 pm.

            The “pro-life” President:

            “Grab ’em by the _____.” (I don’t think the mods will allow me to post it in it’s entirety.)

            But yeah, pro-life. While cutting SNaP and Medicare.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/10/2020 - 11:56 am.

      So let’s see – when it comes to shopping out their vulnerable daughters to older men, they don’t want the gub’mint telling them what to do with their minor age children. But when it comes to actions having to do with supporting the needs of transgender teens, then gub’mint intervention is just fine and dandy!

      https://www.npr.org/2020/02/07/803508821/south-dakota-lawmakers-seek-to-ban-treatment-for-transgender-teenagers

      For conservatives, I guess it all just depends on which side the bread is buttered on.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/10/2020 - 10:53 pm.

        You’ll note in an above post that I encourage the accommodation of LGBT wishes. Since we encourage the rights of parents to allow sex change surgery in children it also seems that we should allow these children to wed the partner of their choice. Trusting the parents, if logical in a permanent situation (sex change), should also be the case in a non-permanent situation (marriage). Then again, we allow children to get abortions without parental consent, so why should they need consent from parents to wed?

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/11/2020 - 09:40 pm.

          You are missing the entire point. This has nothing to so with children marrying the partner of their choice. Its about coercing minor into non-consensual relationships with adults.

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/12/2020 - 12:48 am.

            Read the law. It allows minors and non-minors to marry. Who are we to say who is coercing whom? What point is it we are trying to make?

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/12/2020 - 12:36 pm.

              Who is to say? The people forced into these marriages as children who later escaped. The reason this is an issue in the first place is that these are not consensual marriages.

              I am going out of my mind here? Do people really think its ok for children to be married to adults without a say in the matter?

              • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 02/13/2020 - 08:44 am.

                If anyone is going to be adjudged to be “out of their mind” here, don’t worry – it’s not going to be you.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/08/2020 - 05:40 pm.

    Rapists do not make good husbands. Teens are not the property of property of their Dads. A man with Limmer’s patriarchal attitudes needs to be removed from office by the women who live in his diatricc.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Scott on 02/08/2020 - 09:47 pm.

    This proposed legislation is asking the public through its elected representatives to explicity recognize that the state and not the parents should determine what’s in the best interest of children as it relates to marriage before age 18. Similarily, antiiabortionist, unable to educate and convince people of the rightness of their position, turn to the government as its enforcer. I have not yet given up on the power of community over that of the state. Peace

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/10/2020 - 01:03 pm.

      And you know what? The government does know better what is in the best interests of their children in this case. A parent that would allow (or force, more often) a child to marry an adult is a terrible, terrible parent. I certainly hope the government will be the enforcer here. Someone needs to stick up for the children here – they are not the property of the parents.

  9. Submitted by Mark Iezek on 02/12/2020 - 08:56 am.

    The article states

    “A married child under age 18 cannot:

    get health care or check into a hospital”

    But Minnesota Statutes states

    “144.342 MARRIAGE OR GIVING BIRTH, CONSENT FOR HEALTH SERVICE FOR SELF OR CHILD.

    Any minor who has been married or has borne a child may give effective consent to personal medical, mental, dental and other health services, or to services for the minor’s child, and the consent of no other person is required.”

    There appears to be a discrepancy between the statement in the article and Minnesota Statutes.

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