Child marriage is something that many people think only happen in third-world countries. However, they are far more common here in the U.S. than most of us realize. In fact, girls as young as 12 are married, often against their will, to adult men throughout the country every year.

Isn't underage marriage illegal? Even though most states require that people be 18 or older to get married, there are exceptions. If a parent consents to a marriage and/or a judge approves it, there is no minimum age in more than half the states in this country.

While many of these girls marry young men 18 and older, some wed men who are far older than they are. It's hard to know exactly how many underage girls get married every year because the data in many states is spotty. However, according to a nonprofit organization called Unchained at Last, between 2000 and 2010, over 167,000 children entered into marriage.

Religious and Cultural Beliefs Are Behind Many Child Marriages

Ironically, even though the U.S. State Department has called underage marriage a "human rights abuse," legislators in this country have for the most part been hesitant to ban it, citing religious rights. Girls are forced to enter into these marriages in Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

While it's often based on religious beliefs, cultural beliefs have also played a role. In some cases, girls have been forced to marry their rapists rather than bring "shame" to their families. Sometimes they marry an immigrant so that he can remain in the country legally.

The Dangers of Child Marriage

Girls and young women who enter into marriage at a young age are more likely to develop physical and mental health issues. They also face economic challenges. They often don't even graduate from high school. They're more likely to be abused. However, unlike adult women, if they go to a domestic violence shelter, they will often be sent back to their parents or spouse.

Efforts by various state legislatures to end child marriage have, for the most part, been unsuccessful. Lawmakers don't want to be accused of impinging on religious freedom. Some legislators, however, continue to pursue the issue. While this is still an uphill battle, family law attorneys can advise women about their rights and work to do what they can to protect them.