By Audra Kalvar
A habit of jotting down random facts or video links that pique her curiosity led Kara Wright to discover the topic of child marriage laws in the United States. She watched a gripping documentary on four child marriage survivors who shared their harrowing stories. Once she started researching the various child marriage laws and statistics, she felt compelled to dig deeper and conduct her own research to highlight the issue and develop a framework for future policy and legal solutions to protect minors.
Wright, an IU Southeast sophomore and a history major, presented her oral presentation titled “White Lace and Legal Disgrace: Child Marriage in America” at the recent IU Southeast Student Research Conference and Showcase. She was mentored by faculty member Rebekah Dement, Ph.D., Honors program director, and English lecturer.
“I took an Honors research class with Dr. Dement and that really taught me how to research in depth and put the information together,” said Wright. “Getting Dr. Dement’s input on my independent project was absolutely remarkable. She’s just the most incredible resource. There’s absolutely no other experience that can garner the kind of benefits that participating in a conference and being able to conduct your own research provides. I’ve done research projects both years and it’s been really wonderful too because presenting has given me a goal within my research. Sometimes it can feel like you’re mired down and the research is never going to escape the dark crevices of your Google document but then you actually get to share it with people, and that is so encouraging.”
Tackling a Taboo Topic
During her research, Wright found that domestic violence, human trafficking, financial abuse, health outcome disparities, and impacts on education were all factors present in child marriages. According to an article published in the November 2022 Brown Political Review, 40 children (defined as under the age of 18) are married off every day in the United States.
“From 2000 to 2010, there were 248,000 children married in the U.S. and what was shocking to me was of those marriages 80% happened between adolescent girls and adult men,” said Wright. “So, it’s not this young Romeo and Juliet situation. My sources showed that this is something that impacts all communities – this is happening everywhere in the United States.”
Wright also discovered that there are no federal laws governing how marriages are counted and tracked. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau only asks people who are age 15 years or older if they are married or not.
“The age breakdown, according to PBS Frontline, is 1% under age 15, 29% at 16, and 67% at 17,” noted Wright. “That 1% equates to six 12 year olds, 51 thirteen year olds and 985 fourteen year olds. Now, especially when we’re looking at child marriage, what shocks me is just how it intersects with rape laws. If these relations had occurred outside of marriage, the older adult would have been charged with a sex crime. A lot of states allow this legal loophole, so these individuals cannot be tried for rape.”
Wright also revealed that there was strong opposition to banning child marriage from both sides of the political spectrum which truly astonished her. Left leaning groups felt a ban would limit reproductive rights and right leaning organizations argued that bans harmed freedoms.
Going Beyond the Research to Make a Tangible Difference
Wright has plans to submit her research paper to the Undergraduate Research Journal for publication and also to apply for a research fellowship next semester. Her long term goals include pursuing a law degree to work on laws and legislation in the future to benefit those in unfortunate circumstances. This research project has inspired her to get involved with Unchained at Last, a survivor-led nonprofit organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States through direct services and advocacy.
“Having the opportunity to get this research experience will make me a stronger candidate for law school,” said Wright. “Law school requires a lot of research. You have to understand how to mine very dense books and monoliths and then be able to take away the information that is most useful to you. Also, having those strong presentation skills, and being able to convince your audience that what you’re researching and what you are trying to argue really matters is just absolutely valuable.”