On Thursday, October 5th 2023, Zonta District 9 took to the steps of Burbank City Hall for a press conference, spreading awareness on their campaign to end child marriage in California. Child marriage is legal in 40 states, seven of which don’t have a minimum age, and one of those seven is California.
Zonta is an international membership organization that works to build a better world for women and girls through empowerment, service and advocacy. There are groups across the world, and Burbank has it’s very own Zonta Club in the city, which is a part of Zonta District 9. District 9 was founded in Los Angeles in 1923 and just celebrated their 100 year anniversary. Their area covers Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah.
Child marriages are happening everywhere, especially here in the United States. The chart below shows how many marriages took place by state between 2000 and 2018 alone. The International Center for research on Women (ICRW) found that 18 out of 20 marriages contained either physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse, and 4 out of 5 marriages end in death, divorce or separation.
77% of these marriages are minor girls being married to adult men, most of which with a large age gap. Each state sets their own legislation when it comes to marriage laws and even federal laws don’t prevent the trafficking of child brides. According to Girls Not Brides, 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children.
The numbers are astounding, and while most states have a minimum age of 16, 17, or 18, California doesn’t even have a minimum age at all. Minors under 18 in California can’t vote, can’t consent to medical treatment, join the military, enter contracts, and even get divorced. Girls even younger can’t open bank accounts, get a drivers license, or rent an apartment, but are allowed to get married.
Parental consent is a blurry line in child marriages because majority of the time it’s the parents who bribe, manipulate, traffic, and barter their children into marriage against their will. “Child marriage is one of the most powerful tools for human trafficking,” said Ela Pandya, the Coalition Lead, Zonta Porterville, Arranged Marriage.
“I actually work as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice combating human trafficking and you are absolutely right,” said Vice Mayor Nick Schultz. “California is a hotbed for human trafficking, and this is one of the most effective tools to trap children and it’s high time that we do something about it.”
Zonta International has partnered with UNICEF USA and they have done incredible work on their campaign thus far, funding UN projects to end child marriages in twelve countries to the extent of $7.2 million. Since 2017 they have been working to propose marriage bills in each state, which they call the #18 No Exceptions Law. Their efforts have been successful in ten states, including Michigan which signed the bill last month.
The October 5th press conference took place on the steps of City Hall, accompanied by Vice Mayor Nick Schultz, and Councilmembers Zizette Mullins, Tamala Takahashi, and Nikki Perez. A group of about 20 women representing Zonta District 9 held up signs to end child marriage and bring attention to the issue.
Four survivors came out to bravely speak and share their traumatic experiences as child brides and victims of forced marriages and what they endured at the hands of their abusers. Davinda Kaur came from an abusive home in the UK and found out about her arranged marriage at 14 years old. After multiple attempts of running away, her parents flew her and her fiancé to Denmark to evade immigration suspicion. “What was done in Denmark on my weeding day should never happen to any girl,” said Kaur. “Six weeks later he attacked me and I got away from him that night. I managed to save my life and my own dad did not help me.”
The second speaker, Sara Tasneem, was married at the age of 16 to her abuser. “In the state of California you have to be 18 to consent to sex, yet my abuser was able to marry me at 16. My marriage certificate was a way for my perpetrator to escape any charges and to control my life and sexuality. My personal experience highlights the very real abuse and dangers minors face when they’re forced into marriage,” said Tasneem. “Once legally married, I faced insurmountable barriers to be able to leave that marriage. I could not hire an attorney to get a divorce. I could not go to a shelter to escape my abusive marriage. I couldn’t even drive until the age of 23 because my perpetrator controlled every movement. I’m here today asking that our California citizens and legislators listen to survivors and end child marriage under the age of 18, no exceptions, because we can all agree that children should not marry adults.
After the emotional recounting by the four survivors, Vice Mayor Schultz presented a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Konstantine Anthony who could not be in attendance. “I want to say that the entire city council stands with all of you. Thank you for your advocacy. I can’t speak for the council but I’ll speak for myself. I call upon our state legislators, Senator Anthony Portantino and Senator Caroline Menjivar to introduce the legislation to end child marriages in California. We have a congressman who wants to be a United States Senator, I believe that Congress can absolutely introduce legislation at the national level so that we have a federal approach to end child marriage.”
Farida (Lukmanjee) Chittalwala is the Corporate Social Responsibility Consultant for the Zonta Club of Newport Harbor. She drove from Orange County to Burbank with her handmade sign which she shared with Schultz after the conference. It read, “There are about 3.8 trafficking victims in California for every 100K California civilians.”
If you or someone you know is in danger due to human trafficking or child marriage, reach out now to: call 1-888-373-788, text “BeFree” (233733), or live chat at humantraffickinghotline.com. You can act now and fight for marriage laws in California by sending an email to your state legislators today!