Many Americans perceive child marriage to be a global issue, rather than a domestic one. However, child marriage laws in the U.S. are not dramatically dissimilar to those in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
It is currently 100% legal in all 50 U.S. states for children under the age of 18 to wed adults. 25 states do not specify an age floor, meaning with a judge’s or parent’s consent, a child of any age can be married. PBS’s Frontline reported that over 200,000 children – mostly girls – were married between 2000-2015. In many cases, marriage creates an accessible environment for abusers to harm children when they become spouses. When 15-year-old Kaya Callahan learned about these chilling statistics, she leaped into action.
In August of 2017, Callahan initiated a social media campaign called #StillAGirl, urging lawmakers to end the practice of child marriage in the United States by encouraging people to write letters to their representatives. “It is a copy and paste letter, so all you need to do is write your name, your governor or representative’s name, and send it off,” Callahan explains.
A cheerleader on the side, Callahan’s interest in activism sprouted after attending a charity event that featured a child marriage survivor as one of its speakers. In speaking with Kaya and listening to her describe the atrocities these young girls face when married, it is evident that her intellect and eloquence is derived from a place of compassion.
“She talked about how she was married at the age of 10 to some older man that she had never met,” Callahan says. “Her parents just said ‘here we go. We’ll sign you off and you’re someone else’s.’ She had to drop out of school. Her husband was beating her and she didn’t know how to escape. She was too young to get a car. She was too young to get a lawyer. She was too young to get a job. She was trapped. I was just beyond shocked to hear that someone my age has gone through all of that already.”
Already outraged, the New Jersey-born-teen learned that her Governor, Chris Christie, recently vetoed a bill that would raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 without exceptions. She took it as a call to action. “He vetoed it because there were no loopholes or exceptions for a young girl to get married to a man. I sat there and thought ‘what loopholes should there be for that?’” She then did her research and wrote a letter to the governor, urging him to support legislation that raises the minimum marriageable age to 18.
Through the organization she works with, Tahirih Justice Center, Callahan immersed herself in the cause and dedicating her time to learning every story and statistic possible. “A lot of the times, these children can go to youth groups to get help, but once the child goes there and runs to this group to be helped,” she continues, “the group has to contact the parent. So the parent is notified and there is so much more damage that can happen. These children can’t go to a women’s shelter because they are too young. They are stuck in the middle. They feel like there’s no escape.” Places like the Tahirih Justice Center, she explains, can help girls with needed legal services.
Callahan tells me that the both the government and public are unaware of how far the problem spans across the country. “In every state, there is not an exact number on how many girls have been married because the states do not keep record. There is only record of it in some counties. We do not even know what the exact number is. We can only count from these counties.”
To stop this problem, writing a letter to her governor was not enough for Callahan. “After I wrote it, I then thought, ‘this shouldn’t be just to him, but to everyone.’ Everyone should know about this issue.” That’s when she began her campaign and published an article in Teen Vogue, describing the details of child marriage and her own advocacy.
She tells me that her campaign has mostly been well received, even with certain comments on social media. “There has been, of course, the few, that say ‘there should be exceptions.’ I try not to belittle them, but to educate them.”
Besides those few, Callahan’s friends, family, and even a political celebrity have supported her campaign. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Former President Bill Clinton and Former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tweeted Callahan’s Teen Vogue article. “I found out at my football game when I was cheering. My mom was in the stands, and of course, I’m on the complete other side,” she laughs. “My mom yells, ‘Kaya! Come here!’ I was basically working so I wasn’t really allowed to go, but I ran to the fence and she was like ‘Chelsea Clinton just tweeted your article!’ And I was completely like “Oh my god, a Clinton?!” It was crazy!” Callahan hopes that the publicity and attention that Americans gave to her campaign will generate more people to urge lawmakers to take action against child marriage.
“I just want to let the lawmakers know that there is a voice. There is a voice behind these girls. There is a group behind this girl who is getting married, doesn’t know what to do, and is trying to get out,” she urges, with conviction, frustration, and hope simultaneously growing in her voice as she continues. “There are more of us. There are more of us that just want to help because we are all girls. We are all united as one. There is no one who stands alone.”
If you wish to participate in the #StillAGirl Campaign, click here.