North Carolina’s Child Marriage Problem

North Carolina’s Child Marriage Problem

North Carolina’s Problem

North Carolina currently allows children to wed. It seems like an issue that is supposed to be nestled in the far corners of the world, though.

Child marriage happens “over there.” Forced marriages can’t happen in the United States, let alone in the old North State.

However, data released by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) indicates that not only does North Carolina allow for children as young as 14 to get married, but it is also one of the top five states in the nation that has the highest number of child marriages.

There were 8,781 minors listed on marriage license applications between 2000-2015 in North Carolina, topping Alabama and Tennessee with Texas, Florida and Kentucky coming into the top three in the nation.

North Carolina and Alaska are tied with having the lowest allowable marriage age at 14 years old in the nation as well.

In “Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations,” a report published by ICRW in August of 2020, anecdotal evidence suggests that North Carolina is now becoming a destination to take children who would be protected from child marriage in another state.

While this is, on its face, completely disturbing, it doesn’t even begin to highlight the laws that are on the books that establish protections for children, but are summarily thrown out the window when a marriage is had.

For instance, criminal law in this state outlines that certain age gaps are considered statutory rape. In North Carolina, if a child is 15 years old or younger and is sexually involved with someone more than 4 years their senior, that is deemed statutory rape and is a felony.

However, marriage between a youth and an adult in the exact same circumstance is sanctioned by the state.

According to the data, between 2000-2019 the vast majority – to the tune of 93 percent – included a marriage between a minor and an adult as opposed to a marriage of two minors.

Also, the majority of those applications involving a child 15 or younger would have been considered felonies under existing statutory rape laws had marriage not been a factor.

Nearly 85 percent of the data shows the minor-adult marriages was a girl marrying an adult man.

According to “Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations,” children in N.C. can be married at age 16 and 17 with parental consent with no protective measure in place to determine whether the parents are coercing or forcing that child to marry.

Children who are 14 or 15 have to go through a judicial process to marry or access the state’s “pregnancy exception.”

In “Child Marriage in North Carolina” the ICRW says “survivors of child marriage are now coming forward around the country. Many have reported that they were forced to marry their rapists in an attempt to shield their rapists from prosecution for forcible or statutory rape; to cover up case of child abuse, neglect or exploitation; or left to suffer other lifelong irreparable harm from being married so young.”

Forced marriage is considered human trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.


Harms of Child Marriage

Marriage before the age of 18 is harmful for to a child. It is oftentimes a violent and abusive relationship for the minor. It can be mired in coercion and control. If we want to protect children, then the prohibition of child marriage must come to fruition.

Gender, poverty, and exploitation

On a national level, women disproportionately experience poverty over men. When we focus our attention to North Carolina, that number is just as bleak with 17.3 percent of women in this state living in poverty, according to a “Status of Women in the States” report.

The basic understanding of women living in poverty translates to the further harm child marriage causes for future outcomes.

It is important to note, that in the U.S. and in North Carolina, it is adult men who are marrying minor girls.

Child marriage is linked to gender equity based on this fact.

A girl who marries before the age of 18 will have a higher likelihood of experiencing poverty.

“Early marriage also magnifies the negative effect of completing less formal education on women’s future earnings and likelihood of living in poverty. Whereas women in the U.S. who complete fewer than 12 years of schooling are 11 percent more likely to live at or below the poverty line as adults, those who marry before age 16 are 31 percent more likely to live in poverty,” according to “Child Marriage in the United States: A Synthesis of Evidence on the Prevalence and Impact.”

When poverty looms, the threat of exploitation is present.

Poverty is driving factor that contributes to human trafficking in the U.S. When women are not afforded an opportunity to make a fair and living wage, they are more vulnerable to being coerced or forced into labor and/or sex trafficking out of necessity and desperation.

Allowing child marriage as a policy not only harms human rights for girls and women, but it also feeds the pipeline of victims to traffickers, if the spouse isn’t a trafficker themselves.


Read: Child Marriage in the U.S. — Survivor Story Compilation


Violence against children

Though there is no reliable quantitative data suggesting that early marriage will increase domestic violence, there is “strong qualitative evidence showing that physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse and reproductive coercion is common within child marriages.”

Abuse in a marriage of a child will also invariably contribute to a higher Adverse Childhood Experience score, because at the end of the day, we may be putting marriage on a child but they are still very much a child.

This abuse can be a further trajectory toward more abuse later in life and, again, fuel the victim to trafficker pipeline.

A study in he American Journal of Public Health, “Human Trafficking of Minors and Childhood Adversity in Florida,” illustrates that the common thread of young victims of human trafficking is adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers discovered that most youth who entered the juvenile justice system in Florida with reports of human trafficking had a higher ACE score.

To unpack the study further, these children had ACE scores of six or more.

The most prevalent ACEs in the researchers’ 913-participant study group included emotional abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, family violence and sexual abuse.

Among advocates, therapists, health care providers and social workers, it is relatively common knowledge that the prevalence of sexual abuse is a key indicator in whether a child is further victimized through sex trafficking.

In this study, however, the researchers took it one step further.

They concluded that sexual abuse in connection with a high ACE score may serve as a key predictorof exploitation in human trafficking.

Where sexual abuse did not necessarily mean a child would invariably be exploited, the addition of high ACE scores proves a further trajectory toward victimization.

Sexual abuse does function as a gateway trauma, initiating increased likelihood of exposure to other forms of exploitation, but coupled with other adverse childhood experiences that likelihood may increase further.


What’s Next?

On Feb. 2, the N.C. House of Representatives and the N.C. Senate introduced bills that would raise the age of marriage to 18 without exception – including eliminating the pregnancy exception and parental consent option.

We encourage you to contact the senator and representative(s) in your district and tell them to vote in favor of raising the age of marriage to 18 years old without exception.

Find your legislator.

Read News & Observer story: “North Carolina lawmakers want to stop 14-year-olds from marrying”


Become a member of NC Stop Human Trafficking. Click here to learn more.


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