Updated 13 May 2020
“With TrustLaw and White & Case's support, the Unchained team and I were able to help achieve an incredible victory last week: We helped Delaware become the first U.S. state to end child marriage. One down, 49 to go.”
Fraidy Reiss – Founder and Executive Director of Unchained at Last, May 2018
For the past three years Unchained at Last has advocated tirelessly for social, legislative and policy change to end forced and child marriage in America with the support of TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service.
Between 2000 and 2010, about 170,000 children under 18 were wed in 38 U.S. states where data was available, according to the organisation.
In March 2016 Fraidy Reiss, Founder and Executive Director of Unchained at Last, approached TrustLaw for free legal assistance to underpin their advocacy efforts and help outlaw child marriage in the US. The international law firm White & Case developed a legal memorandum which provided the backbone for the non-profit’s campaign to gain legislative support for A3091, the bill intended to end child marriage in New Jersey.
Despite challenges and setbacks in New Jersey, such as Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoing the bill in 2017, Unchained continued its partnership with White & Case and TrustLaw, using this legal research to draft, introduce and advocate for legislation state by state. The scope of the pro bono research expanded to cover other key US states including California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
On May 9 2018, after years of lobbying US legislators and raising awareness, Unchained saw Delaware become the first state to ban all child marriage without exceptions. Fraidy explained the emotional moment they knew their work had paid off: “We got to watch senator after senator stand up and explain why she or he supports the legislation, and we got to watch them pass it unanimously - which we had not expected”.
With one state down, Unchained and its partners had gained momentum, but there were challenges in store. Last month the organisation experienced an unexpected setback in New Jersey, which was about to become the second U.S. state to end all forms of child marriage. At the request of General Assembly member Gary Schaer, the Speaker pulled the bill from the agenda.
In response, Unchained dedicated their resources to a series of op-eds, email campaigns and held a peaceful protest or “Chain-In” outside the office of Assemblyman Schaer.
On 22 June 2018, New Jersey became the second state in the U.S to end child marriage. Fraidy and her team are already looking to the next state.
Fraidy says: “The pro bono legal research White & Case performs for us at Unchained, now that TrustLaw has matched us with the firm, forms the basis for the legal arguments we make as we travel the country to convince legislators to end child marriage. It also gives us legitimacy: We can tell legislators this is not our opinion; it's coming from the global law firm White & Case. I am not exaggerating when I say our push to end child marriage in America would be impossible if not for White & Case's support.”
On 8 May 2020, Pennsylvania became the third state to end all marriage before age 18, with no exceptions.
"Pennsylvania is now the third U.S. state, after Delaware and New Jersey, to end child marriage -- and the first state legislature to do so unanimously. We're now three down, 47 to go in our national movement to end child marriage in every U.S. state" said Unchained At Last.
Five days later, on 13 May, Minnesota also signed to end child marriage. Under previous Minnesota law (which will change effective August 1), children age 16 and 17 could marry with parental consent. According to Unchained At Last, as of 2014, an estimated 1,140 children aged 15 to 17 living in Minnesota were married.
"Children can easily be forced to marry or to stay in a marriage before they turn 18, because they have limited legal rights. Further, marriage before 18 produces such devastating, lifelong repercussions for girls that the U.S. State Department has called it a "human rights abuse."Our advocacy has helped to end this human rights abuse in Delaware, New Jersey, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Pennsylvania -- and now Minnesota. American Samoa, too, has ended child marriage. Which state or territory is next?" said Unchained At Last.
If your organisation is interested in receiving pro bono legal advice or if you’re a law firm interested in developing your pro bono work, please contact our TrustLaw team here.
This is an update of the story: Ending child marriage in the US, one state at a time posted in June 2017.