Activist and founder of Unchained at Last Fraidy Reiss, spoke to American University students Tuesday at a webinar virtual event hosted by AU Student Government’s Women’s Initiative.
The webinar was moderated by Skylar White, a junior in the School of International Studies, and featured an introduction given by Kaniya Harris, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs.
Unchained at Last is a nonprofit organization that works to end forced and child marriage in the United States. Unchained provides legal assistance and social services while advocating for ending child marriage at both the state and federal level.
Between 2000 to 2018, almost 300,000 minors were married in the United States.
“In most of these cases, because these individuals were under the age of 18, they were entered into a marriage by a parent … in many cases without any input from them, and in most cases, they were not allowed to file for divorce … because they are minors,” Reiss said.
Reiss differentiated between a forced marriage and a child marriage. While a forced marriage can occur at any age, child marriage is defined as having one or both parties under the age of 18.
During the webinar, Reiss spoke about her own experience with forced marriage.
“I was married off to a stranger when I was 19,” Reiss said. “I was not allowed to have a bank account. Not allowed to have any money of my own, to have a job, not enough not to have my own credit card … So what does that mean? Once I realized this guy is violent and abusive and is threatening to kill me, and I want to leave, how can I possibly support myself?”
After leaving her husband, Reiss said she was completely cut off from her family and religious community.
“It took me 15 years to get out of that abusive marriage, at which time my family retaliated, they shunned me,” she said. “And after I managed to rebuild my life with my two daughters, I founded Unchained at Last to help others who were … going through what I was.”
Unchained at Last travels to different states to educate lawmakers on the need to raise the minimum age to get married, Reiss said.
“This is, we like to say, the most simple common sense legislation that harms no one,” Reiss said. “It costs nothing. The price tag is $0.00, and that's including tax. And it's legislation that ends human rights abuse. How often do you have legislation like that, that harms no one, costs nothing and brings such incredible benefit?”
Reiss described how, during these visits, members of Unchained at Last dress in bridal gowns, chain their wrists and tape their mouths to show legislatures “what life looks like for a girl or a woman who was forced to marry.”
The current minimum age for marriage in D.C. is 18, or 16 with the consent of a parent or guardian.
Unchained at Last has been able to introduce legislation in half of the U.S., and pass legislation that raises the minimum marriage age in six states.
“That's how hard it is to pass the simple common sense legislation,” Reiss said.