By Charlotte Alter
June 6, 2017
MOTTO
Charlotte Alter is a national correspondent for TIME

Sara Tasneem was 15 years old when she was married off to a 28-year old stranger. Her parents were divorced, and her deeply conservative father was a member of a Muslim sect in California. When she went to visit him during high school, “He told me I was going to have to get married and the Sheikh was going to pick who I was going to get married to,” she recalls. “I never questioned my dad, ever.”

Thousands of U.S. teens are married before they turn 18 every year. Sometimes the practice coincides with religious traditions, as conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims often encourage early marriage. But even nonreligious adolescents marry before they’re legal adults, sometimes because of a teen pregnancy. Most states require parental consent or the approval of a judge in order for a minor to get married — but in many cases, the parents are driving the match, and a judge will often defer to the wishes of the parents.

Tasneem’s case illustrates how few protections are available to young brides if their parents are the ones encouraging early marriage. She met her husband the same day as their spiritual marriage ceremony in 1996. “I was introduced to him that morning and I was handed over to him physically that night,” she said. “I remember asking, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ and they wouldn’t answer me. They just handed me over to this guy that I didn’t know.” She suspects that her husband, who was a new convert to the group, was enticed to the sect by the possibility of marrying a virgin.

Tasneem says her father concealed the marriage from her mother by demanding she tell her mom she was going to live with her dad permanently. “They made me call her and forced me to lie to her on the phone. And for me as a 15 year old, that was horrible,” she recalls, adding that her husband and father stood over her as she made the call. “I didn’t feel like I had the power to stand up to all these adults.”

Tasneem — who asked to be identified by her first and middle names only, in order to preserve her safety — left the country with her new husband and became pregnant almost immediately.

After she turned 16, they returned to the U.S. and drove to Reno, Nev., for the official marriage ceremony. In Nevada, teens as young as 16 can get married with parental consent, which can be granted in the form of a notarized statement along with a copy of the minor’s birth certificate. Tasneem said the note from her father felt like a “permission slip.” “There was no person there asking me if I consented,” she said. Details of Tasneem’s story were confirmed when Motto examined her passport and Nevada marriage license, which is signed by a county clerk.

“I was 16 years old and pregnant, so in my mind that should have been evidence of a rape,” Tasneem says, but, “I think when girls are pregnant, people tend to turn the other way — they think it’s better for them to be married.”

U.S. officials are significantly less likely to prosecute statutory rape if marriage is an option, says Marci Hamilton, CEO of abuse prevention advocacy group ChildUSA and professor of law and religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Prosecutorial discretion allows prosecutors to decline to press statutory rape charges if they think they can’t win the case — and some might worry that a jury is less likely to convict if the couple is married.

Tasneem eventually managed to divorce her husband in the early 2000s and gained custody of her two children, but not without significant obstacles that she says were exacerbated by her youth at the time of her marriage — she hasn’t finished her education and had no savings, job or support. “It puts roadblocks in the way of their independence,” she says. “You have no rights as a 15 year old.”

Child marriage is a serious problem in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 167,000 people age 17 and under married in 38 states, according to data compiled by Unchained At Last, a child-marriage abolition group, for the New York Times. The majority of states in the U.S. don’t set firm floors on how young a person can get married with parental permission, and some states like New Hampshire still allow children as young as 13 to marry with parental and judicial consent. In nearly every state that allows some form of underage marriage, minors are required to get parental consent or judicial approval, and sometimes both.

Tasneem recently testified on behalf of a California bill that would prohibit minors from marrying under any circumstance, but the bill was later adjusted to keep the loopholes but increase judicial scrutiny. “You’re basically creating a situation where girls are forced and coerced into marriage,” she says. “There’s no justification for that.”

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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