We preach against child-marriage abroad. But thousands of American children are wed annually.

Michelle DeMello walked into the clerk’s office in Colorado thinking for sure someone would save her.

She was 16 and pregnant. Her Christian community in Green Mountain Falls was pressuring her family to marry her off to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn’t think she had the right to say no to the marriage after the mess she felt she’d made. “I could be the example of the shining whore in town, or I could be what everybody wanted me to be at that moment and save my family a lot of honor,” DeMello said. She assumed that the clerk would refuse to approve the marriage. The law wouldn’t allow a minor to marry, right?

Wrong, as DeMello, now 42, learned.

While most states set 18 as the minimum marriage age, exceptions in every state allow children younger than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry.

Unchained At Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States, spent the past year collecting marriage license data from 2000 to 2010, the most recent year for which most states were able to provide information. We learned that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children — almost all of them girls, some as young 12 — were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older. Twelve states and the District of Columbia were unable to provide information on how many children had married there in that decade. Based on the correlation we identified between state population and child marriage, we estimated that the total number of children wed in America between 2000 and 2010 was nearly 248,000.

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