‘Legal child rape’ horror in the US
A YOUNG American schoolgirl carrying a bouquet of flowers walks down the aisle, her bouncy curls hanging softly over her innocent eyes, as she approaches the altar.
But she's not at the wedding ceremony as a guest, bridesmaid or flower girl.
She's the bride. And a soon-to-be mother.
Tina, who spoke to news.com.au on the condition only her first name was published, was just 13 years old when she fell pregnant to a 33-year-old man. But instead of the man being charged with statutory rape, he was granted a license to marry her that same year, in Louisville, Kentucky. Tina spent the next decade in an abusive relationship with her husband.
"I was terrified that day," Tina said while showing news.com.au a photo of herself in a white lace dress at her 2007 wedding ceremony.
Subjected to regular physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, she had every reason to be afraid.
"I was beaten black and blue every other day and raped constantly," she continued.
"I didn't have anyone to turn to so I didn't think I had an out. When I tried to leave my husband reported me as a runaway and authorities took me back to him.
"It wasn't until much later I realised I was a victim of legal child rape."
Laws have recently changed in the US state of Kentucky with the introduction of a bill that sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 17. But in half of the country's states, there is no legal minimum age for marriage, if statutory exceptions including parental or judicial consent, or pregnancy, are met. In those places, a 40-year-old man can, in theory, marry a five-year-old girl.
Kansas University's Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor and chair Nicholas Syrett told news.com.au that in most states with no legal minimum age for marriage that an adult who had sex with a child of any age was immune from prosecution - as long as the act took place after the wedding.
"Many statutory rape laws are written in such a way that if you're married to a person it's no longer considered statutory rape," he said.
"One of the expectations of marriage is that sexual relations will occur so if you're a child who has married an adult, it's not viewed as a crime if sex happens within that.
"The protections of marriage would in theory protect a man from having sex with a small child, but it's extremely rare for a judge to approve a marriage for anyone aged under 12 in any state."
US state politicians are often reluctant to introduce reforms because of a common, albeit misdirected, belief that marriage is the best solution to teenage pregnancies, according to Prof Syrett.
"They do not want to stifle religious freedoms and resist law changes because they see marriage as sanctioning sex and creating legitimate pregnancy," he said.
More than 200,000 minors, some of them as young as 10, were married in the US between 2000 and 2015, according to a 2017 report.
Almost 90 per cent of the minors who married were girls from impoverished families or broken homes. Most of them were 16 or 17 years old. In rare instances, however, children as young as 12 years old were granted marriage licenses in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina.
"It's much more common outside of cities than it is in them," Prof Syrett told news.com.au.
Donna Pollard, 34, is one person among those statistics.
She was just 16-years-old when she wed a 29-year-old man in Tennessee, US.
The pair had met for the first time two years earlier when Ms Pollard was sent to the counsellor to deal with family issues and emotional problems. But instead of teaching her skills to help her to cope, he groomed the 14-year-old child into a relationship, and with the permission of her mother, married soon after. The following year, she had a baby girl.
"I was exploited through child marriage," Ms Pollard told news.com.au
"He became very abusive … It put an end to my childhood."
And it happened all too easily, according to her.
"When we went into the county clerk's office in Tennessee to wed, the clerk didn't even look up from her computer, she just said 'which one's the minor?'" Ms Pollard said.
"She didn't even look at me to see if I was OK and assess the situation despite the fact you could see a huge disparity in age.
"And they just gave us the marriage license."
Ms Pollard said the marriage was officiated by a reverend who met them at an old Victorian home where a photographer took pictures of the occasion.
Within 24 hours, the newlyweds loaded up a truck, and drove to their new home in Indiana.
According to Ms Pollard, she spent the next few years trapped in a vicious cycle of abuse at the hands of her husband.
Child brides typically can't get divorced because they are underage, while many women's shelters will not take anyone under 18 and landlords will not rent to minors, Ms Pollard said.
But it was one particularly shocking incident which was the final straw in her marriage.
"When my daughter was a baby, (my husband) pinned me to the floor and some horrible things were happening while she was in very close proximity and she started laughing," Ms Pollard said.
"Of course she was a baby so had no clue that any of that was violent.
"But I realised then I had to get away from him or she was going to grow up thinking this was normal."
Ms Pollard filed for divorce when she was 20 years old. But it took years to rebuild her life.
"I convinced I was at fault for everything that was happening," she said.
"When you've been so manipulated to think you as an individual have no value at all and everything you do is wrong and causes people pain then you have no self esteem.
"And he had things he had me do when I was very young that he held over my head so I didn't think I had any credibility."
She is now the founder of Survivors' Corner, a non-profit organisation in Louisville, which provides "empowerment and support to adult survivors of various forms of trauma". It offers the kind of support Ms Pollard said she wishes she had when she was younger.
"So many of the people we support are survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse," Ms Pollard said.
"So we hold free workshops for them to provide them with that network of support in a workshop style format."
Ms Pollard successfully lobbied Kentucky politicians to tighten state laws around child marriage. Tennessee soon followed suit and also adopted the bill. She now has her sights set on the remaining US states that don't have minimum age laws and wants to see the age lifted to at least 17, with tough restrictions.
NARAL, an abortion rights group, has previously opposed proposed reforms to tighten the laws.
"Youth seek marriage for a variety of reasons," it said, including access to a spouse's health insurance coverage, housing assistance, custody rights and military spousal benefits.
But Ms Pollard said it was a fight she believes child advocates will eventually win.
"My end goal is to break the cycles of abuse completely," she said.
"We have to keep demonstrating examples of people who have been through hell but gone on to survive and say 'I don't have to be a victim anymore'."
According to her, it's important for survivors to realise they "don't have to judge themselves for decisions made in that traumatised state".
"I think that's one of the reasons people get so caught up in that cycle of being a victim and not being able to move on to lead a healthy and productive life is because they're judging themselves and being judged by society," she said.
"They don't realise it's OK for them to be OK.
"That's part of the image we have to recreate for people."