Sara Tasneem, 37, once had big plans for her future.
“When I was a freshman in high school,” she said. “I had made a decision that I wanted to join the Air Force and go to law school.”
Instead, Tasneem’s American-born father gave her to a man to be married.
Tasneem, who was 15, was visiting her father during the summer recess. Normally she lived with her mom.
“My dad had become involved in a very … it’s basically kind of like a cult. It’s separate from the religion of Islam; it’s different in its practices and beliefs.” Tasneem continued. Tasneem is not her real name, but one she used to protect her identity. “Growing up in the group, it was your role as a girl that you would just be a wife and a mom.”
16 and pregnant
Her dad told her she had arrived at an age when she was drawing the attention of boys, and she had to marry because sex outside of marriage was forbidden. Tasneem was spiritually married to a man 13 years her senior and taken away to her husband’s country, which she does not want to disclose.
The pair returned to the U.S. when she was 16 and pregnant with her first child. They were legally married in Reno. Tasneem said her husband, like her father, was abusive.
“I got really depressed, and I just remembered seeing kids my age going to school and thinking I want to be one of those kids. Why can’t I go to school?” Tasneem said.
‘Not stable’ marriages
The United Nations considers marriage before age 18 to be a human rights violation. While the highest numbers occur in the least developed nations, child marriage is also a reality in the United States. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and found from 2010-2014, about 78,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 17 said they were married.
“It’s a problem because they are less likely to finish high school, 31 percent more likely to land in poverty in adulthood, and for girls, their health is threatened when they give birth young and the health of their babies is threatened,” said Jody Heymann, the study’s co-author, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center.
Heymann said the data showed one aspect of U.S. child marriages that is different from other countries.
“One of the things that’s different about the United States and the rest of the world or much of the world is that boys are getting married young, too. It’s largely in the United States, children under 18 marrying other children,” Heymann said.
Rates of child marriage in US
The data showed that per 1,000 children, nearly 7 underage girls were married and nearly 6 boys.
The study showed higher numbers of children of American Indian and Chinese descent were married. Immigrant children were more likely than U.S.-born children to have been married. Child marriages were also not unique to any one religion.
“There are child marriages across all ethnic groups and countries of origin, but those children who come from families that originated in Latin America, the Middle East or East Asia do have higher rates of child marriage. It is also the case that children whose parents are born here in the United States still have far higher rates than would be acceptable,” Heymann said.
The numbers also varied across regions in the U.S. In West Virginia, Hawaii and North Dakota, more than 10 in 1,000 children reported being married at the time of the survey.
Maine, Rhode Island and Wyoming have much lower rates of child marriage with less than 4 in 1,000.
The research found 20 percent of married children were living with their spouses; most of the rest were living with their parents.
“In 1 out of 4, by the time they turn 18, they are already divorced or separated,” said Heymann. “These are not stable unions.”
‘I felt robbed’
Tasneem’s mother came to the U.S. from Guyana as part of an arranged marriage when she was 19. When Tasneem was 5 years old, her parents divorced, and her mother left Islam.
Tasneem had two children with her husband before she was able to get a divorce.
“I really felt robbed. I felt robbed of my education and to this day I’m fighting to get my education back so it’s a very long process because not only are you 10 steps behind your peers but now you’re saddled with the responsibility of taking care of children on your own for the most part,” Tasneem said.
Her children are grown, and she recently remarried. Getting to this point has not been easy.
“There’s really no way to make somebody whole after taking away their freedom,” Tasneem said.
She is now getting her graduate degree. She wants to be an advocate for women’s rights and fight human rights abuses.