When it comes to child-marriage laws, the United States and Canada have more in common with Niger and Bolivia than with other Western, industrialized nations.
Yesterday was International Women's Day, and today the Clinton Foundation released an extensive report and data-visualization website devoted to exploring women's progress across a variety of metrics. It's all worth perusing, but the above map in particular jumps out as not matching up with typical stereotypes of rich and poor countries. Places like Russia, China, and Ethiopia prohibit marriage before the age of 18, but many countries in the Americas allow it with "parental consent and/or under customary law."
Here's a more detailed map of minimum marriage ages by country, from the World Policy Forum:
The Clinton Foundation notes that child marriage "limits the full potential of girls" and "undermines health, education, economic opportunity, and security." Early wedlock is most common among the world's poorest children.
One study found that teen marriage in the U.S. increased by nearly 50 percent in the 1990s thanks to "the spread of abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education at American schools, a shift toward cultural conservatism among some teens and a growing fear among youngsters of contracting AIDS through promiscuity," as the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2004.
Child marriage is much less of an issue in the U.S. than it is in other countries with similar laws. By 2002, only about 2.1 percent of American girls between the ages of 15 and 17 were considered "in a union," and just one-tenth of 1 percent were married. Meanwhile, in Niger, 39 percent of girls are married by 18, and 22 percent are in Bolivia.
Most U.S. states set the age of consent at 18, but minors can get married younger if their parents approve or if a judge thinks it's in their "best interest." Some states only enacted minimum marriage ages a few years ago after a rash of betrothals between 20- or 30-somethings and teens.
Some American child marriages are the result of attempts to prevent the imprisonment of the older partner for statutory rape. The Tribune story describes the case of Liset Landeros, a 14-year-old in Texas who married her 18-year-old boyfriend to keep him out of jail.
"It was love at first sight," she told the paper. "My parents didn't agree. So I ran away from home and moved in with James."
Even though American teens who get married might have more say in the matter than their counterparts in other countries, many advocates believe permissive child-marriage laws can still be harmful. The Clinton Foundation report notes that "while many factors influence the prevalence of child marriage, laws can play a foundational role by setting minimum ages of marriage, which affect social norms and expectations." For example, after the Maldives set the minimum marriage age to 18 in 2001, the percent of girls who were married by age 18 fell from nearly half in 1995 to just 6 percent in 2009.