My name is Sara Tasneem, and as a fifteen year old, I was forced to marry a man almost twice my age (he was 28 years old, and thirteen years older than me).

My father introduced me to my husband-to-be that morning and I was told I would marry him that night. After a spiritual wedding ceremony that evening, performed by the leader of the group my father belonged to, I was handed over to my new husband and left in his care. He became my guardian, husband, and the father to my children. I lost my childhood, my freedom, and myself that night. I would never be the same person again.

I was fifteen here, shortly before I flew to visit my dad in CA

Six months after our spiritual ceremony I was legally married at the age of 16 and pregnant in Reno, N.V. None of it felt like a real marriage to me. It began to feel more and more like a prison after our legal marriage. After I had my firstborn, a beautiful baby girl, I started fighting for my own freedom. I fought to go back to school and I slowly began establishing my own freedom. Seven years after marrying legally, I was able to separate from my ex-husband. I was twenty-three years old then, and he was thirty-six. He left the marriage and went back to his life, with no repercussions while I was left with the aftermath.

My daughter and I in 1997, I was sixteen years old

The Aftermath

With little education, and little means I had a long road ahead of me. Finding the strength to leave my marriage was difficult but the hardest part was yet to come. Leaving the marriage was the first obstacle I had to overcome to find my own freedom.  Getting a divorce took me three years. I did not have the financial means to hire an attorney, but he did. I did not have the money to fight him in court, and I ended up giving him everything we had, which was not much. He gladly gave me all the debt, which he had racked up over the course of our marriage.  He happily left the country and fucked off to where he came from.

At first he tried to keep my kids. I had to fight to get them back. That meant an expensive ticket abroad to convince his family to let me have my babies back who desperately missed me. He became a distant father to my children who saw him in the summers if he decided he could afford to send for them. My ex-husband had a hard time keeping a job during our marriage and afterwards, and I was never sure if I was going to receive the minimal child support that I desperately needed. There were times I had to choose between paying for gas to go to work or buying dinner for my kids.

Even after leaving my marriage, I was years behind my peers in education, work experience, mental health, and life experience. I had to learn how to navigate life as a single mother, starting from zero. During my marriage my ex-husband had controlled the finances and I had never even had my own bank account. Luckily, I had learned to drive at 22, and I had an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts by the time I left my marriage. Without these abilities, I am not sure that I would have been able to leave and survive with my kids on my own. I am one of the lucky ones.

Most of the community I had grown up with shunned me because I had divorced. I was left a shell of human being because of years of physical abuse starting from my early childhood, and from the emotional and sexual abuse I suffered throughout my marriage. I was so used to surviving my circumstances that I no longer knew how to live a life without being scared, anxious, depressed, and angry. It took years to overcome the mental obstacles that were holding me back. I suffered from severe and debilitating depression, PTSD, and anxiety for years after I left my forced marriage.

my babies

My children grew up with a mother who was still in survival mode most of the time. I felt ill equipped to navigate the adult world most of the time. Despite these circumstances, my children and I found a way to move on and rebuild our lives. There are still moments of despair, anxiety, and depression that I struggle with, but now I have a support system that helps me to overcome these struggles. I was a lucky one. Many survivors do not have the same support system I had.

My children have grown up to become independent, free thinking adults and are in charge of their own futures. They have been my motivation to always move forward, and to never give up. I wanted to give them a better life than I had and I am grateful for each day I am able to do that.

WHY DOES CHILD MARRIAGE HAPPEN IN THE U.S.?

Many Americans are unaware that children across the United States are legally able to marry, in some states with no age limits. State laws govern marriage age laws and 48 out of 50 states allow children under the age of 18 to marry with parental consent, or if there is a pregnancy involved. What is problem with these laws? Minors are easily coerced and forced into marriages especially when raised in an abusive household. Parental consent can mean force and abuse if a minor does not comply with a marriage chosen for them. Once they have been forced into a marriage it is extremely difficult to leave.

Minors who marry are three times more likely to experience abuse within their marriages. Shelters will not take minors in without parental consent, and often minors are returned to their abusive relationships. Minors cannot enter into contracts in most states so it is hard to find an attorney that will take on a minor’s divorce. There are a myriad of other significant roadblocks that minors face in the U.S. if trying to leave an abusive forced marriage. Minors are not allowed to get driver’s licenses until after 16 and they are not allowed to work in some states until 15-16 years old (with parental consent). Many minors who marry are often forced to drop out of school limiting their ability to get jobs, or future opportunities. Minors who marry often have more children than their adult counterparts. Forced child marriage can often be inter-generational and many minors who are forced into marriages suffer from multiple layers of abuse. Minors who marry suffer from higher complications in childbirth, and higher rates of mental health issues.  

Ending child marriage in the United States is an uphill battle because each state must approve new bills limiting the age of marriage to 18. Many states are reticent to pass such bills because of age-old patriarchal views of marriage and pregnancy. Recently however, Delaware and New Jersey passed the marriage laws to limit the age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions. After the age of 18 individuals are considered adults and they can access the vital services that they might need if they experience abuse, or want to divorce their partners. There are still 48 states that allow child marriage with varying exceptions.

You can help! We can end child marriage in the United States. Each state has different marriage laws, find out what your state laws are and contact your legislators. Need help? Reach out. There are numerous ways to get involved and all it takes is an email or a few clicks to find out how. Tasneemsf333@gmail.com