When Max Robins first learned of the prevalence of child marriage in the United States from a New York Times op-ed, he was still a senior in high school. Later, the summer before he arrived at American University, he picked up the topic again, and this time he could not look away.
“I read this article, and realized, ‘Wow. America actually has a child marriage crisis,’” he said. “More often than anyone might think, young girls are tragically raped, and their [misguided] parents end up marrying these girls off to their rapists to save face.”
He found himself at the right place to develop a passion project. “The AU environment really fostered research,” said Robins. Olivia Ivey, a public affairs librarian with SPA, guided Robins through the painstaking process of gathering and interpreting child marriage research. The topic found its way into multiple class projects, and eventually led Robins to found Students Against Child Marriage, the first student-led nonprofit of its kind.
Currently over 75,000 children in the United States, across all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, are trapped in underage marriages. As of July 2020, only four states have outlawed the practice. Archaic laws on the books of many states still allow children as young as 12 (girls) and 14 (boys) to marry with parental consent. Eleven states mandate no minimum age at all. However, the issue’s relative lack of national attention has kept it from becoming a legislative priority. Bills die in committee as gatekeepers push forward other, higher-profile, projects.
“It is an indefensible, bipartisan subject that everyone can get behind,” said Robins. “When they do, it passes either unanimously or near-unanimously.”
Robins began organizing in Summer 2019. “I wanted to do more than just research in a vacuum, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to get involved,” he shared. “I thought back to a common thread throughout my research, that a lot of students are disengaged with child marriage advocacy. I have this incredible respect for the potential for student-led activism and what those movements can do to create sweeping, society-wide change. It finally struck me that America’s millions of college and high school students could be the key to ending child marriage.”
He recruited 25 other students across the country into a planning team, which developed a specific 10-State Strategic Plan, launched a social media campaign, and began curating activist art and a research library. They partnered with service providers like Survivor’s Corner, Global Hope 365, Tahirih Justice Center, and Thriving After Surviving to research the issue on the ground, understand resources for victims, and collect survivor stories. The team made connections and began seeding chapters into high schools and colleges. In July, Students Against Child Marriage officially launched its first 15 chapters nationwide, and is looking to expand to 30-40 within the next several months.
By pushing the issue into the spotlight, said Robins, he hopes Students Against Child Marriage can hold politicians accountable for sponsoring and passing laws outlawing child marriage. “These students can be the pivotal force that finally closes the gap between where current efforts stand and passing crucial, life-saving legislation,” he said.
For its rollout, Students Against Child Marriage selected ten geographically diverse states, using four main criteria: 1) high incidence rates of child marriage, 2) outdated laws, 3) current active legislation, and 4) in-state political, advocacy, and student support. With the momentum sustained in these states, they hope to expand into new territories.
“Every day over 200 boys and girls are [forced] into these life-destroying, coerced, abusive marriages. Each day that we wait on this is hundreds of lives and hundreds of futures that are deprived,” said Robins.
Raising the national profile of child marriage, said Robins, also means communicating to victims and survivors that they are not alone. “As a survivor, you think that you are the only person, until you realize that there are thousands and thousands of others who have gone through these exact same experiences because of these exact same laws,” he said. By partnering with service organizations, Students Against Child Marriage can connect survivors with resources for intervention and recovery and lead them to others with similar stories.
Robins considers the support of AU to be foundational to the organization. “I would not have been able to start Students Against Child Marriage if not for the constant backing and resources provided by American University,” said Robins. It started with Freshman Writing 101 with Dr. Caimeen Garrett (CAS) in Fall 2018, and culminated with an honors course on reproductive justice taught by Dean Jessica Waters (JLC) in Fall 2019, for which he compiled a comprehensive lobbying report on child marriage.
In between, Robins, a double major in political and data science, had access to top scholars in the SPA Department of Government, including SPA Professors Jeff Lane, Gregg Rothschild, Candace Nelson, and James Thurber. “Through dozens of conversations or 20-minute interviews, they provided me a wealth of knowledge that really built up the foundation of what Students Against Child Marriage stands for.”
Limited scholarship on the subject, spread across multiple academic disciplines and political agendas, made it tough to put together a comprehensive literature review. In response, Students Against Child Marriage is currently organizing its own research library as a general resource for scholars, advocates, and victims.
“We are trying to compile literature, papers, books, interest group reports, think tank findings, and datasets, and get in touch with authors for preprints and right to republish,” he said. When the repository is established, Robins hopes that it can serve as a conduit between scholarship and data and local-level service providers, schools and public libraries.
When asked how the larger AU community can help further the mission of Students Against Child Marriage, Robins responded that stakeholders could spread the word. Supporters can help amplify the message or share connections with press, legislators, or students willing to head up a chapter.
“Students, faculty, staff, and alumni can raise the critical level of awareness. This is an issue that exists outside the public eye, and that’s what we are trying to change,” he said.
For more information on Students Against Child Marriage, including their 10-State Strategy, the progress of their research library, or to start up or join a chapter, visit the website at www.studentsagainstchildmarriage.org, or email Info@studentsagainst.org.