By Amy Harmon and Alan Blinder
State lawmakers across the country are moving to raise the minimum age to marry, out of growing concern that lax marriage laws may be contributing to sex trafficking and to children being forced to marry against their will.
Delaware became the first state to ban marriage for anyone under age 18 when the governor signed the measure last week. In the other 49 states, current law allows minors to marry, generally with parental consent or judicial approval. At least 20 states have no minimum age set by statute.
But over the past two years, seven states have raised their minimum marriage age to 16 or 17, and at least seven more are considering legislation to tighten their rules.
Lawmakers in Missouri, with a reputation as the easiest state in the nation for marrying a 15-year-old, moved ahead this week with a bill to ban the marriage of anyone under 16. A measure similar to Delaware’s has passed the State Senate in New Jersey, and this week a legislator in Utah, where children may marry at 15, suggested a ban on marriage before age 18, which advocates consider the gold standard.
“There is significant national momentum, and the pace of change is quickening,’’ said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for public policy and strategy at Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that favors tighter limits. “States are realizing that so long as laws remain on their books that may actually facilitate the forced marriage of a child, they need to consider themselves accountable.’’
Data that the group collected from public records in 41 states showed that between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors were married.
Experts on family law and advocates for women say that early marriage imposes social, educational and financial burdens on teenage girls. Because as minors they may lack the legal standing to file for divorce, experts say, many find themselves trapped in abusive relationships. The testimony of several survivors of child marriages has helped galvanize the movement to close marriage-law loopholes.
But some legislators and religious groups have argued that the stricter marriage laws infringe on religious freedom and parents’ rights. Some have argued that in the case of a pregnancy, a teenage mother would benefit from being married. Last year, Chris Christie, a Republican who was governor of New Jersey, conditionally vetoed a bill that would have banned marriage for children under 18, on the ground that it did not “comport with the sensibilities” or “religious customs” of some residents.
In addition to banning anyone under 16 from marrying, the bill pending in Missouri would prohibit 16- or 17-year-olds from marrying anyone over 21. Girls are often wed to older men in marriages that are arranged by families.
“We always want to respect parental and religious rights, but we want to protect children,” said State Representative Jean Evans, a Republican from the St. Louis area who wrote the bill.
Ms. Evans said that legislators had grown alarmed about the possibility that the state’s laws were helping sex traffickers avoid prosecution, and that for many Missouri residents, child marriages were just “not something they see every day or hear about.”
“Quite honestly, the press has been very helpful,” she said. “We came into work one Monday, and the front page of The Kansas City Star, sitting in the back of the chamber, was about a 15-year-old marrying their rapist.”
In Virginia, which passed a law similar to the Missouri bill in 2016, the effect was clear. The year before, 182 minors were married in the state, but the year after, the figure fell to 13, and most of those were 17 years old.
Even so, Fraidy Reiss, the executive director of Unchained at Last, an advocacy group for women and girls in forced marriages, criticized the legislation for continuing to fail to protect the majority of children at risk.
She cited figures for 2013 showing that 20 children married in Missouri who were 15 or younger, while more than 200 were 16 or 17.
“When you’re trying to end a human rights abuse, it’s illogical to carve out an exception for the people most likely to be affected,’’ Ms. Reiss said of the Missouri bill. “This is a far cry from ending child marriage.’’
Ms. Evans said she had hoped for a bill that would have banned marriages outright for children — “You’ve got to be 18 to sign a contract, so in my mind, you should be 18 to get married” — but that she acquiesced to concerns about religious traditions in which people marry young.
A spokesman for Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri did not respond to a request for comment about Ms. Evans’s plan.
Published on The NY Times on May 17, 2018
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.