Child brides call on US states to end ‘legal rape’

US laws permit the legal rape of thousands of teenage girls every year, survivors of child marriage say. (Shutterstock photos)
Updated 25 October 2018

Child brides call on US states to end ‘legal rape’

  • Child marriage, more commonly associated with developing countries, was permitted in every US state until this year when the Atlantic coast states of New Jersey and Delaware enacted blanket prohibitions of marriage before age 18
  • Globally 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year, says Girls Not Brides, a coalition working to end child marriage

NEW YORK: US laws permit the legal rape of thousands of teenage girls every year, survivors of child marriage say, but momentum is growing to end underage marriage in more than a dozen states.
Child marriage, more commonly associated with developing countries, was permitted in every US state until this year when the Atlantic coast states of New Jersey and Delaware enacted blanket prohibitions of marriage before age 18.
“I don’t understand how other countries comprehend that it’s wrong, but in our country somehow it’s right,” former child bride Sonora Fairbanks told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I think it’s literally sexual assault ... It’s legal rape.”
Globally 12 million girls marry before age 18 every year, says Girls Not Brides, a coalition working to end child marriage which the United Nations regards as a human rights violation.
Campaigners say children married young are more likely to leave school, get divorced, experience domestic abuse and mental health problems and live in poverty than those who marry later.
The majority of US states do not lay out a minimum age for marriage if statutory exceptions are met, such as parental or judicial consent or in case of pregnancy.
But at least 20 state legislatures are likely to weigh reforms next year, experts say.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers may raise the age of marriage to 18. Under current law, children ages 16 and 17 need parental consent and those under 16 need judicial consent as well.
Lawmakers in the midwestern state of Ohio also are weighing reform so that 17-year-olds would need court approval to marry. Current Ohio law lets 16-year-old girls marry but with an array of exceptions allowing younger children to marry as well.
Child marriage survivors often say they were forced to marry against their will, particularly if they were pregnant to avoid the stigma of giving birth outside wedlock.
Rates of underage marriage are high in southern, rural states with a high prevalence of poverty and religious conservatism, as well as among Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs and Hmongs, says campaign group Unchained At Last.
Raised in a strict evangelical family, Fairbanks was groomed to marry young and at 16 wed a man 10 years her senior.
“That was the only choice presented to me,” she said.
“People saw it as consent because I wasn’t kicking and screaming. But if anyone asked me what I really wanted, I didn’t want that ... I wanted to go to college. I wanted to get a job. I wanted to date people.”
She gave birth to eight children as her efforts to leave were stumped by having no money and nowhere to go.
“Your husband can report you as a runaway because you’re under 18. You’ll be brought back to his house,” said Fairbanks, now 40.
Child brides typically cannot get divorced because they are underage, many women’s shelters will not take anyone under 18 and landlords will not rent to minors, she said.

Throw-away child

About one in 200 children aged 15 to 17 — some 58,000 — were married in 2014, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data. Just over half were girls, it said.
Girls who are abused are more likely to become pregnant and face pressure to marry, said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center, which opposes child marriage.
Molested as a girl, Evie Lane was pregnant at 13. Married at 14, she moved out of the home of her abusive stepfather into that of what proved to be an abusive husband.
By age 15, she was the mother of two children.
“You have no voice. You have to do what they tell you to do,” said Lane, now 47 and living in South Carolina.
Another former child bride, Dawn Tyree, was pregnant by a family friend whom she was forced to marry at age 13. He was 32.
“I feel like I was a throw-away child. I was tossed around from home to home and, at the quickest opportunity, married off,” said Tyree, now 46.
Tyree and Fairbanks have lobbied to change the law in California, which allows marriage at any age with consent of a judge and parent.
Proposed legislation that would have banned child marriage altogether was amended in 2017 to remove age restrictions and add stricter court oversight instead, campaigners said.
Some Americans have the mistaken impression that underage marriage typically involves high school sweethearts, said Tyree.
“That’s what I believe keeps the laws intact,” she said. “What’s unfortunate is that’s not the case.”
Unchained at Last said three-quarters of some 167,000 child marriage licenses it examined, dating back to 2000, involved underage girls — some as young as 10 — marrying adult men.

Pregnant
Lawmakers are often reluctant to introduce reforms because they believe marriage is the best solution to teenage pregnancies and they do not want to stifle religious freedoms.
Maryland considered but failed to vote on a bill this year to tighten up its law, which allows 15-year-olds to marry if pregnant with parental consent. State lawmakers will reconvene in January.
NARAL, an abortion rights group, opposed the reform.
“Youth seek marriage for a variety of reasons,” it said, including access to a spouse’s health insurance coverage, housing assistance, custody rights and military spousal benefits.
“Although the national advocates for this bill seek to assist a young woman’s struggle against parents and legal guardians forcing her into marriage, it also ignores challenges a (pregnant) youth may face when ostracized by her family.”
But the tide is turning, Smoot said, as more data is publicized and survivors tell their stories, helping the public understand child marriage.
“We’re getting to at least acknowledgement that children should not be married,” she said. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)


Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”