Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations

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Publication Author

Lyric Thompson and Mara Steinhaus

Child marriage—a marriage in which at least one of the parties is under 18 years old—persists across the United States, and in light of mounting evidence of harm, many states have moved to address the issue. Yet legal loopholes and lack of data on prevalence and impacts of the practice continue to leave young girls vulnerable.

Prior to this analysis, North Carolina was tied with Alaska for the lowest legal age set by statute at which children can marry (14 in case of pregnancy)—and one of six states where there had been no publicly available information on the rates at which children in the state marry.

Working with officials from 50 of the state’s 100 counties that voluntarily provided records, ICRW released new data that estimated North Carolina to be among the top five U.S. states in terms of numbers of child marriages. The overwhelming majority of those marriages were between a minor and an adult. And, alarmingly, 57% of marriages involving 14- and 15-year-olds involved age gaps large enough to constitute a felony offense under the state’s statutory rape laws.


Thanks to the legislative and organizing work of our partner, Tahirih Justice Center, the launch of this research was complemented by a swift and bipartisan legislative effort that resulted in the introduction of new legislation in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly. The bill to increase the age of marriage to 18 was met with significant political pushback—and the compromise package that was ultimately signed landed at age 16.

While legislative efforts fell short of 18 as a minimum (which only four states have accomplished), this important win help ensure that more children will be protected from the human rights abuse of child marriage.

Read: The New York Times: Child Marriage Doesn’t Actually Happen Here, Right? (Lyric Thompson)

Key Findings

Working with officials from 50 of the state’s 100 counties that voluntarily provided records, ICRW can now, for the first time, provide a picture of how many children are marrying in the state, and implications for their rights, health, safety and economic prospects.

  • At least 3,949 marriage license applications involving 4,218 minors were filed from 2000-2019 across 50 of North Carolina’s 100 counties where data was voluntarily provided. Projecting out to assume similar rates of marriage license applications in the other counties and comparing the state to others with already-known datasets, our analysis finds that North Carolina may rank among the country’s top five states with the highest rates of child marriage.
  • The overwhelming majority of the marriage license applications collected (93 percent) occur between an adult and a minor.
  • North Carolina marriage law provides legal loopholes in which the state sanctions what would otherwise be a felony. 57 percent of the marriage license applications involving a minor age 15 or below consisted of parties at ages and age differences where sex between the parties, outside of marriage, would be classified as Class C or B1 felonies under existing North Carolina statutory rape laws.
  • Age gaps between parties are large. Of the 3,949 marriage license applications included in this analysis, there were 241 applications where the age difference between the applicants was 10 years or more and 26 applications where the age difference was 20 years or more. The largest age difference between applicants in this analysis was 40 years and occurred in 2002, when a 57-year-old applied to marry a 17-year-old.
  • Due to data limitations, it was not possible for this study to determine how many of these marriage license applications were the result of forcible rape, child abuse, incest and other factors that are consistently found to be risk factors in the context of other states and countries where ICRW and partner research is readily available and further disaggregated.

Key Recommendations

In North Carolina, there is an antiquated “pregnancy exception,” which applies only to 14- and 15-year-olds, wherein marriage is permitted in cases of pregnancy. Based on our evidence and analysis, we recommend that North Carolina statutes on marriage should be amended to ensure that children cannot be married in the state, and that exceptions for pregnancy and parental consent are eliminated.

  • Legislators should set a firm minimum marriage age 18, with no exceptions.
  • Legislators should remove the pregnancy exception at NC Stat 51-2.

Read the full report by clicking below.



Related Resources

Publication Rights:

Thompson, L. and M. Steinhaus (2020). Child Marriage in North Carolina: New Evidence and Policy Recommendations.
Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women.

© 2020 International Center for Research on Women