Students launch organization to advocate against child marriage in the US
Student Against Child Marriage was created in the spring
A group of American University students created the new nonprofit organization Students Against Child Marriage this spring, in an effort to raise awareness of child marriage in the United States and promote anti-child marriage legislation.
Despite a relative lack of attention to the issue, child marriage remains prevalent in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2015, at least 207,459 minors were married in the country, according to PBS’ “Frontline.” Max Robins, a junior in SPA and the organization’s founder and executive director, said that he recognized a lack of student advocacy on the issue and saw an opportunity to use student voices to change child marriage laws.
“I have incredible respect for student activism after what we’ve seen this year with Black Lives Matter and what we saw two years ago in the fight for gun safety,” Robins said. “Students have an unequaled ability to bring about sweeping societal change and create reform.”
Child marriage poses particular legal issues that make victims vulnerable to years of abuse with little recourse. Once a parent signs off for their minor child to be married, the child is typically still unable to file legal proceedings for themselves, and divorce is effectively impossible.
Robins and the group’s chief operating officer, junior Ames Jewart in CAS, said that their main focus will be making laws against child marriage a legislative priority. As of May 2020, 47 states had yet to entirely ban child marriage, primarily due to legislative loopholes left in decades-old legislation.
Donna Pollard, the head of Survivors' Corner, a Kentucky-based organization supporting survivors of various traumas, including from child marriage, said that she had been working with Robins since the inception of the group at AU.
“I was at first kind of leery, skeptical about what people's intentions are,” Pollard said. “But after realizing how receptive he was to best practices we’ve identified, I realized that it was really a great opportunity to partner.”
A child marriage survivor herself, Pollard felt that the two groups’ missions paired well together.
“You have [Survivors’ Corner’s] specific niche area which is providing that nurturing and supportive empowerment to survivors,” Pollard said. “And then you have incredibly energized students that are exercising their voice, and are so close to the ages of children that are being married off, so they have a lot of insight to bring to the conversation.”
Although its leaders anticipate an eventual expansion, the first project that Students Against Child Marriage will be undertaking is the 10 State Strategic Plan, which is pushing states to adopt anti-child marriage policies through individual campus groups in each of those states.
“What we're doing is we're working to expand the battlefield,” Robins said. “We had many conversations with existing advocates, child marriage survivors and lawmakers to determine where we could have the biggest impact possible.”
The group is pushing for Massachusetts’ Act to End Child Marriage to pass. The bill would mandate that “a magistrate or minister shall not solemnize a marriage if a party to the marriage is under the age of 18.”
While legislation has been their first priority, Jewart noted that one of the biggest pitfalls in the beginning of their advocacy was the lack of readily available data on child marriage. As a result, the group hopes to create a child marriage research library.
“There’s a lot of research on the subject, but it’s all spread out,” she said. “So we’re working on getting on centralizing that research and offering our own research.”
As of September 2020, the group’s website includes a U.S. map detailing the prevalence of child marriage in each state where data is available.
While Students Against Child Marriage isn’t a club, Jewart and Robins stressed that they are a student-driven organization and that student engagement, both at AU and around the country, will be crucial to both their research and legislative advocacy efforts.
“If you sign up for the AU chapter on our website, you’ll get emails about how you can take steps like emailing this legislator or tweeting about this fact,” Jewart said. “But we also do a lot of research, and anyone that wants to help is welcome to.”