Esther, married by her father at 17 to an almost unknown 23-year-old. Julia united at 15 with a boy from her religious community. April, forced to marry a 22-year-old man after being abandoned by her parents. Pat, forcibly married at 14 by her family to a 27-year-old social worker who raped her … On the website of the NGO Unchained at Last, the nightmarish stories that parade one after the other are set in Nevada, the ‘Idaho, New York or Florida. “It is often thought that child marriage concerns only developing countries. Think again, it’s America’s dirtiest and best-kept secret! Fraidy Reiss, founder of this organization, knows what she is talking about. For the past ten years, she has been fighting to eradicate forced marriages and child marriages in her country. “A reality that most of my compatriots ignore,” she explains from her office in New Jersey. It is difficult to imagine that such practices could take place in a country which, moreover, undertook in 2015, under the aegis of the United Nations alongside 193 other States, to eliminate child marriage in France. horizon 2030. And yet, the shock report published in the spring by Unchained at Last, after having collected for the first time in all the States the data on civil marriages, is terrifying: between the years 2000 and 2018, approximately 300,000 minors of under 21 have been legally married, most at the ages of 16 and 17 and for the youngest, as young as 10 years old. In 90% of cases, these children are girls united with adult men. “Every day, I am confronted with reactions of disbelief when I mention these figures, even when I face experienced journalists, elected officials, lawyers or members of the administration, ironically Fraidy Reiss. Most fall from their chairs! The ignorance on this subject is immense. “
Nicholas Kristof, journalist for the New York Times, twice Pulitzer Prize winner and specialist in human rights and international relations, was also able to observe: “I told the story of Sherr y Johnson, a woman from Florida who was married to her rapist at the age of 11. After this article, many readers wrote to me telling me that my information was wrong and that their state does not allow marriage under the age of 18. In a way, they were right: the minimum age for marriage in most of the 50 US states is 18, but each allows exceptions that allow for the worst abuses. As Fraidy Reiss explains, the most common is “parental consent”: most states allow 16 or 17 year olds to marry if their parents sign an application. A “parental consent” which most often resembles a forced marriage. “Even in the event that a girl cries while her parents sign, the clerk usually does not have the power to intervene. In most states, there is no law prohibiting forced marriage, ”explains the activist.
Second exception: judicial approval can lower the age of marriage below 16 in many states, ten of which do not even specify a minimum age. For example, in California, Michigan or Mississippi, judges can legally authorize the marriage of an elementary school student. This is the case with Sherry Johnson, who also told her story in a book. In 1972, at age 11, she was repeatedly raped by a 20-year-old member of her Pentecostal ward. And get pregnant. In order to avoid criminal investigation and opprobrium, the church and its family decide to organize their wedding. A first agent of the local government of Tampa refuses to proceed with the legal union. In the neighboring county of Pinellas, another judicial officer, less observant, marries the little girl to her attacker. In the “New York Times”, Nicholas Kristof published in 2018 the portrait of Dawn Tyree, forcibly married at 13 by her parents to her rapist, a family friend nineteen years her senior. “According to our study, we were able to show that between 2000 and 2018, 60,000 of these marriages were celebrated between people with such a difference in age that it would be a sexual crime if these relationships sexual intercourse took place outside of marriage. But within the framework of a union authorized by law, they become legal. Nothing is done to stop them. What is the point of having laws? »Fraidy Reiss is angry. And to continue: “I have already heard politicians say to me: ‘You know, I tend to think that a girl who gets pregnant has better marry”, even if it is the fruit of a rape! Sometimes marriage is the culmination of a continuum of intra-family violence. Jean was thus married at the age of 15 to a tyrannical and violent man of 27. A way for his abusive mother to have one less mouth to feed.
Michelle, she was united at 16 to a 22-year-old man she barely knew, under pressure from her new stepmother willing to do anything to get rid of her. In many cases, marriage is also a way for parents to control the sexuality of girls, to obtain a visa through a foreign husband, or to conform to cultural traditions as in some religious communities, which ‘they are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Mormon or Jewish. This is also the story of Fraidy Reiss. Coming from Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, she was forced to marry a man chosen by her family at 19. For nearly twenty years, she suffered rape, beatings and death threats before managing to escape from this hell. “I’m still traumatized,” she tells us, still overcome with emotion ten years after her divorce. Forced marriage is a life of abuse. I’m lucky, because setting up this association was therapy for me. But you should know that my family has never forgiven me for leaving my executioner. They consider me dead. I lost everything. “
Today, at 46, it’s hard to imagine that this radiant and determined woman could have suffered such a yoke. Only a tattoo depicting a broken chain around his wrist testifies to this alienated life. “My ex-husband continues to harass me. He is not allowed to approach or contact me, so the last weapon he has left is the courts. He sues me continuously, tries to have custody of the children, to stop paying child support. It’s his way of keeping control. And the judges refuse to admit that it is harassment. If Fraidy Reiss was able to rebuild herself, study, work as a journalist and then a private detective, others are not so lucky. “We know that a married child will develop all types of psychiatric disorders,” she continues. Most of these girls are withdrawn from school and are 30% more likely than others to live in poverty. Since the creation of her organization, Fraidy has helped 700 women and some men escape these forced unions. But only adults. “A lot of minors call us to ask for help. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything for them because we don’t have the right to do so. Those who flee the marital home or parents who seek to marry them are considered runaways. In general, they are taken home by the police, even if they are subjected to violence. A battered adult woman will be accommodated in an emergency center. But a minor will not have access to it. “
Likewise, a married child does not have the legal possibility of employing a lawyer or of filing for divorce without a legal guardian representing him or her. When Fraidy Reiss explains the lack of prospects to these young girls, she fears the worst: “Some try to kill themselves. So she has only one obsession: to change the law. For this, she started a long-distance race, alerting politicians, legislators, media, citizens, lawyers to encourage them to defend these victims free of charge. His first major supporters: Nicholas Kristof, who writes regularly on the subject in the “New York Times”, and Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former president, who is involved with Unchained at Last. #MeToo also helped shed light on her fight against girl marriage, the ultimate expression of patriarchy, she says. Regularly, to make the voices of these children heard, she organizes militant happenings with the members of her NGO: in wedding dresses, chains on the wrists, they take to the steps of such and such a court or local government. Little by little, things are moving forward. Since 2017, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota have changed their laws to ban any exceptions that make marriage possible under the age of 18. The State of New York has also passed a law in this direction. Only the governor’s signature is still missing. Elsewhere, the demands have been rejected or are awaiting a vote. “It’s really very frustrating,” gets carried away Fraidy Reiss. The law we are defending doesn’t rob anyone, cost a dollar, and put an end to a human rights violation. “To one who is despairing of such slowness, the other activists remind us that what they have accomplished is already historic. “Yes, I am told that five states is a huge victory,” admits Fraidy Reiss, who only has in mind the 45 others who are still marrying children.
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America of Forced Marriage – She