VII. Research on Child Marriage Laws in the US

Working 2 jobs in Geneva

Being a law student is hard, but what makes it even harder is the expectation that law students need to accept unpaid positions to gain experience. I've spent my 1L internship in Geneva, Switzerland, the third most expensive city in the world. Living here without any income was not in the cards for me. Even with university funding for a summer internship, working for free is nearly impossible without financial support from family. Unfortunately for me, I do not have that.  To combat the cost of living in Geneva, I accepted a Research Assistant position working for Professor Vivian Hamilton, who leads William and Mary Law School’s Center for Racial and Social Justice. This position has helped me stay afloat while in Geneva.

The daunting research project

I began working for Professor Hamilton during the school year and in doing so, was afforded an incredible opportunity. Professor Hamilton has done extensive research into the inhumane world of child marriage in the US, something that is horrifyingly still alive and prevalent. During her research, Professor Hamilton met Fraidy Reiss, the CEO and Founder of Unchained at Lastan NGO that has led the fight to end child marriage in the US. Unchained has been working with state legislatures one by one to ban child marriage. Thanks to Unchained's advocacy, Massachusetts became the most recent state to ban child marriage.

Fraidy has been in touch with congressional staffers who want to ban child marriage at the federal level. The only problem was, at the start of the project, no one really knew the extent of the federal statutes and regulations that affect and deal with child marriage. Fraidy contacted Professor Hamilton and asked for help researching federal statutes that allow for or encourage child marriage in the US. This coincided with me being hired as Professor Hamilton's Research Assistant and she asked if I would be interested in this project. You can imagine the look on my face when I heard the details of the assignment… Uncertain of whether or not this was something I could pull off by myself, but passionate about helping the fight to end child marriage in the US, I agreed.

Child marriage should be banned for a myriad of reasons, but a few come to mind that might not be well known or obvious. A child cannot retain a lawyer, so if someone is forced or coerced into a marriage prior to turning 18, they cannot get a divorce on their own. Many states do not let minors stay in domestic violence shelters, so if they are trying to escape an abusive spouse, they often have nowhere to turn. Some government programs encourage children to marry and in fact preclude states from giving certain funds to single parents under age 18. In certain situations, there are actually incentives for an adult to marry the child they are abusing to escape punishment. Unchained at Last provides many services to people that are escaping forced marriages. If you want to know how you can help or would like to learn more about the incredible advocacy Unchained does, check out their website.

“Where do I start?” was my first question

I started by meeting with one of William and Mary’s research librarians, Michael Umberger. During our meeting, we walked through the process of narrowing search results on Westlaw to target the United States Code. From there, we identified search terms that I should start with, like “marr!” and “depend!”. By including the exclamation point, the search results will identify snippets of the US Code that include any variation of "marr" or "depend." This process allowed me to simultaneously search for terms like "unmarried" and "child marriage" without having to double the work.

At the beginning, I had no reference point or idea of where to look to find anything relevant. As I identified statutes that I believed to be problematic, I started a running list with the title number, statute name, section and paragraph numbers, and the exact text that I had identified. After compiling around a dozen statutes, I then presented these results to Fraidy and Professor Hamilton. I truly had no idea if I was going in the right direction, so I was quite anxious leading up to the meeting. I was relieved when they told me I identified exactly what they were looking for.

After several weeks of searching, I got into a rhythm and developed a method. Most of the problematic statutes were found in the "definitions" section. For example, 5 U.S.C. § 8110 defines “dependent” as an unmarried child who is under 18. This is found in the "definitions" section of the statute. Though this does not explicitly endorse child marriage, the text presumes that there are individuals under 18 who are married. If child marriage was banned, there would be no reason to include the possibility for someone to be married under age 18 in the definition of "dependent." This was the most common issue that I identified. But I found statutes substantially more heinous.

Identifying the most egregious laws

Before I began working for Fraidy, she had hired a law firm to do this work pro bono, but their results were not comprehensive. I began my work with a foundation of about a dozen statutes, including several that Unchained had compiled. One of the statutes in the list was 18 U.S.C. §2243, which prohibits sex with a child aged 12 to 15 but specifically exempts those who marry the child. In essence, this statute allowed marriage to be used as a defense to federal statutory rape. Legislation was passed in March, 2022 reinstating the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was repealed under the Trump Administration. In the Renewed VAWA, thanks to Fraidy's advocacy and vigilance, the defense of marriage for federal statutory rape under 18 U.S.C. §2243 was repealed. But there is another nearly identical statute that still exists. Through my research, I identified 10 U.S.C. § 920b, which is under the Armed Forces title. This statute deals with the rape and sexual assault of a minor by someone in the Armed Forces. Under this section, marriage is a defense to statutory rape, and it uses nearly identical text to 18 U.S.C. §2243. 10 U.S.C. § 920b is still in effect and thus a member of the Armed Forces can still use marriage as a defense to statutory rape. 10 U.S.C. §920b was the most heinous finding in my research. 

A call for reinforcements

In the midst of my research, I felt a tad uneasy being the only person sifting through the federal code. During one of my meetings with Fraidy and Professor Hamilton, I learned that a pro bono team at White and Case would be joining us to help in whatever capacity I needed. The pro bono team would soon have around 7 summer associates that would be able to help with the leg work of this project. I created a manual with screenshots and instructions to illustrate my methodology for sifting through the US Code. The summer associates then used the instructions I created to replicate the searches I had done and see if they could identify anything I had missed. I was very happy to have the help. This type of work is monotonous and time consuming, but it is also very easy to skim over something important. We have one shot to propose this legislation and identify every statute and regulation that allows child marriage to exist, so getting it right is essential. I was very surprised and relieved when most of what the summer associates found were statutes I had already uncovered but did not believe were relevant. We added them to the pile so Fraidy could make the final judgment on whether or not to include them. To their credit, the summer associates did find several statutes that were relevant, so their work was valuable and deeply appreciated. Additionally, I was able to get peace of mind knowing a team of summer associates were validating my work.

Finishing Phase 1 of the project

After finishing my research in collaboration with White and Case, we presented our final list to Unchained. Fraidy then asked me if I would be interested in the next phase of the project – the advocacy portion. I ecstatically agreed! What an incredible opportunity to present my research to congressional staffers who work directly with lawmakers on The Hill. Less than a week later, I met with the congressional staffers and discussed my findings. They were shocked and horrified at what I presented, but more importantly, they realized the necessity for this legislation. With Roe v. Wade having been overturned less than a month prior to our meeting, Congress was in a state of upheaval and likely would be for the summer months. We decided it would be best to propose the legislation in September, thus giving us more time to tweak and edit our research. Fraidy and I then agreed to meet regularly to go through the research together so she could better understand what has been compiled. Since then, we have been meeting nearly every week night via zoom, slogging through each statute in excruciating detail to make sure it is relevant, consistent, and properly framed to present to the congressional staffers. Fraidy was an investigative journalist prior to starting Unchained at Last, so her writing skills are... *chef's kiss.*

During our nightly zoom calls, Fraidy and I have been synthesizing the research results so they are uniform and clear. We created a categorization based on the heinousness of the statute or regulation. Our scale is 1-3 with 3 being the most heinous. When we find an especially egregious statute, we put "***" under the statute number and change the font color to red. We call this "asteriscizing" (from the word asterisk). For example, 10 U.S.C. §920b is a statute with level 3 heinousness, so we "asteriscized" it on our research document. Once our final synthesis of the research is done, we will present the finished product to the congressional staffers. From there, the research will be analyzed by the staffers who will begin drafting legislation to effectively ban child marriage federally. Hopefully, the legislation will be proposed in September with bi-partisan support. Here's to wishful thinking.

To say this project has been rewarding would be a gross understatement. One of the greatest benefits has been enhancing my research skills. Because I'm interning at an international NGO for the summer, I have not been researching US case law. However, working with Unchained, I have greatly improved my legal research skills and familiarity with Westlaw (the superior legal research database... sorry, Lexis). I have also met congressional staffers, lawyers at White and Case, and the wonderful and passionate team at Unchained at Last. Meeting Fraidy has been one of the highlights of this project. Her passion and dedication to ending child marriage is inspiring and infectious. Fraidy's biography is worth the read to learn about her mission and why this project is so close to her heart. Despite living in a city as vibrant as Geneva, working with Fraidy on this project has been one of the highlights of my 1L summer.