USA: Polygamy related abuses in Utah

A Call for Action from the Child Protection Project in Colorado and the International Human Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law asking us to urge the U.S authorities to take action against polygamous marriages. Polygamous marriages are practiced on a large scale especially in the State of Utah, but in neighbouring U.S. states as well.
Polygamy is practised in various contexts, including in Muslim countries and communities, and is experienced differently in different contexts. However, in the WLUML network experience, such a custom has always worked against women's interests and is detrimental to women's rights. WLUML joins the efforts of The Child Protection Project in Colorado and the International Human Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law, and request your urgent intervention in this case.The February 8-24 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will focus international attention on the State of Utah and on the U.S. itself. This is an important opportunity to bring to light these human rights violations against women and children and the failure of government to prevent and respond to the abuses adequately.
In recent months, the Bush Administration has championed the cause of women's human rights in Afghanistan as it seeks international support for the United States' war against the Taliban.  We ask your urgent support in demanding that U.S. officials uphold human rights principles at home as well as in other countries.

In the State of Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and in neighboring states, women and girls in polygamous families are being subjected to violence, sexual abuse, incest, child marriage, trafficking, and the coerced marriage of adult women.  Many live in closed religious communities in which they are denied education and access to information from the outside world.  Although international human rights law and U.S. law prohibit these abuses, state and federal officials have failed to ensure that these standards are observed in practice.

Estimates of the number of polygamists in the U.S. range from 30,000 to 100,000.  Of these, the majority belong to a religious group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the "Mormon Church") over the mainstream Church's official ban on polygamy.  Polygamy is prohibited by the Utah State Constitution, but has been prosecuted only once since 1953, in the 2001 case of Tom Green, a polygamist who embarrassed state officials through his aggressive promotion of polygamy in the media at a time when preparations for the Winter Olympics had focused public attention on Utah.


Women and girls who have fled polygamous families report that religious teachings emphasize their duty to submit to the authority of their fathers, husbands, and male religious leaders, and make spiritual salvation contingent on polygamous marriage.   The religious teachings of these polygamous groups and the closed nature of their communities create conditions in which women and girls are especially vulnerable to violence, coercion, and abuse.

Polygamy-related abuses violate basic human rights to: security of person; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from discrimination; and "free and full" consent to marriage.   Reported cases in which girls from the ages of 13 to 16 have been married to older men point to a pattern of child marriage and abuse.  Utah did not raise its minimum age of marriage to 16 until 1999, and girls as young as 14 can still be married with their parents' consent.  Recent reports indicate that girls from Utah and surrounding states are being trafficked to Canada for marriage to polygamous men in the province of British Columbia.

In one well-publicized case in 1998, a 16-year-old girl escaped from the Kingston family clan after being whipped into unconsciousness by her father for running away from her husband.  Her husband was her uncle and she was his fifteenth wife.  Although her father and uncle were convicted of child abuse, incest and the sexual abuse of a minor, the state chose not to prosecute for polygamy.  The girl's 15-year-old brother, who had been designated as the next clan leader, fled in September 2001, telling authorities that he feared abuse if he was returned home.  Their 13-year-old sister escaped in November 2001, informing authorities that she was being prepared for marriage to a 21-year-old man.

Adult women similarly describe battering, intimidation and sexual abuse within polygamous families.  Young women who have been trained to obey religious teachings inside these closed communities and denied any other education may see no option for their future but polygamous marriage.  In such coercive environments, adult women have no real opportunity to exercise the "free and full" consent to marriage required by international human rights law.

Woman and children in polygamous families also suffer deprivations of the basic human rights to education, information and an adequate standard of living.  Girls are frequently removed from the public school system by age 11 or 12.   Access to books, magazines, radio, television and other information from the outside world is cut off.  Although there are several large polygamous clans with substantial financial assets, women have no independent access to those resources.  Many polygamous families receive significant levels of public assistance, but still lack adequate health care and nutrition.

Women and girls who seek to leave polygamous families face serious legal, economic and psychological obstacles.  Because their marriages are not legal under state law, women are denied the rights and remedies usually associated with marriage.  Without adequate education and social contacts in the outside world, women and girls lack the support structures necessary to meet their economic and psychological needs if they leave.   They may also fear spiritual damnation for disobeying religious teachings.  In a number of cases, underage girls who have fled because they were being prepared for marriage have been returned to their families by law enforcement officials.  The failure of officials to adequately investigate and prosecute polygamy-related abuses leads women and girls to believe that the government will not protect their human rights.

The rights violated by polygamy-related abuses are guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The Declaration is binding on the U.S. as customary international law and the U.S. has ratified the Covenant.


Leaders of polygamous groups and several public officials have claimed that religious freedom protects the right to practice polygamy. They argue that government action against polygamy-related abuses amounts to religious persecution.  But religious practices that violate the human rights of others are not permitted by international law, which explicitly provides that religious practices can be restricted when necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others.  The U.S. Constitution similarly denies protection to religious practices that cause harm to others.  The harm associated with polygamy-related abuses place these practices beyond the scope of religious freedom under the Constitution, including: the physical and mental harm caused by violence and abuse; the harmful effects of child marriage on a girl's health, educational opportunities and psychosocial development; and the harmful emotional and psychological consequences of isolation within communities that instill a belief in women's subordination.


Officials in Utah, Arizona and the U.S. Federal Government have allowed those responsible for polygamy-related abuses to escape justice, with few exceptions.   In fact, public officials have made statements that implicitly or explicitly condone polygamy-related abuses, by emphasizing that the state should not intrude on the "lifestyle" of polygamous families. For example, in Colorado City on the Arizona-Utah border, Police Chief Sam Roundy told a Denver Post reporter that the practice of polygamy among the city's police was "none of your's a religion and we have the freedom to do that."  When asked about his department's failure to interview a 16-year-old girl whose mother had reported she was taken to Canada for marriage to a 39 year old man, he responded "I didn't feel I had to talk with her.....I'm not going to mess with it.  The state hasn't taken it upon themselves to prosecute. Why should we ?" (Mar. 4, 2001).

Local police and prosecutors continue to defer to the "privacy" of polygamous groups.  Some have also stated that the crimes associated with polygamy are so numerous that they do not have the resources to prosecute.  Ron Allen, a Utah state senator from the minority Democratic party, has pointed out that the historical practice of polygamy within the mainstream Mormon Church makes it difficult for the 75% Mormon population of Utah to condemn polygamy: "for people in Utah to confront polygamy means they have to confront practices condoned by their ancestors, including mine." (L.A Times, Sept. 9, 2001).

Nor has the Federal Government acted to end impunity for these violations.  Efforts by individuals and groups to enlist the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in dealing with the pattern of  polygamy-related abuses and specific cases have been unsuccessful.  Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the U.S. Government to ensure that these human rights violations against women and children are brought to an end.

The February 8-24 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will focus international attention on the State of Utah and on the U.S. itself. This is an important opportunity to bring to light these human rights violations against women and children and the failure of government at all levels to prevent and respond to the abuses adequately.  We call on the U.S. to end impunity for human rights violations at home and we ask for your support.
Child Protection Project in Colorado and the International Human Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law
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Child Protection Project in Colorado and the International Human Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law