In Tennessee, meanwhile, conservative lobbying group Family Action Council of Tennessee asked Republicans to kill a bill banning child marriage because it might interfere with proposed legislation to counter the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. However, the move drew attention to the fact that judges in the state could grant marriage licenses with no minimum age limit, a detail that made enough people squirm that the bill will now be brought back for reconsideration.
Proposed legislation to ban child marriage in Arizona, which has no age limit on marriage, was watered down by Republican leaders who said a ban would be too restrictive. Instead, the bill that passed in February, HB 2006, says children under 16 must get a judge’s approval, and the judge must find that the “minor is entering into the marriage voluntarily.” Seven Republican lawmakers voted against the bill, and several argued that many girls enter happy marriages in their mid and late teens. Others complained that the matter should be left to the parents to decide.
In March, Florida lawmakers approved a bill to limit marriages under age 17. The new bill says 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent but must take a premarital preparation course. Also, they cannot marry someone more than two years older. The anti-child-marriage bill was approved after years of campaigning by Sherry Johnson, who was forced at age 11 to marry her church deacon, who had molested her since she was 8, and impregnated her when she was 11 years old. Between 2001 and 2016, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 were married in Florida. In one case, a marriage license was issued for a 16-year-old girl and a 90-year-old man.
The Problem With Child Brides
Opponents of child marriage point out that the practice is largely detrimental to girls. Girls who marry at a young age have poor educational outcomes, high rates of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, are more likely to be physically and sexually abused, suffer from higher rates of depression and mental health problems, and their families are more likely to end in poverty.
Many states set the minimum marriage age for girls lower than for boys. Other states waive the age requirements if a girl is pregnant or has a child, which means an adult can get out of statutory rape charges by marrying his victim. Since the bride remains a minor, she has few rights in the event of an abusive marriage. In many states, the girl cannot file for divorce until she turns 18. In some states, minors cannot access domestic violence shelters. Girls between 16 and 19 experience the highest rates of domestic violence.
“When somebody aged 17 or younger called us, there was almost nothing we could do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway,” said Fraidy Reiss, the director of Unchained At Last, an organization that is lobbying legislators to raise the marriage age to 18. “If we manage to get her to a shelter, most shelters would turn her away.”
If a child marriage doesn’t work out, after divorce, a former child bride is ill-prepared to become independent, often lacking an education, job experience or even the ability to drive. According to a 2010 study, women who married as minors are 31% more likely to live in poverty.
“It’s devastating how trapped they become,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, tells Teen Vogue. “I definitely would say that legislators do not seem to get it.”
Now that public attention has been turned to the topic, however, proponents of child marriage are being forced to acknowledge that their aspirations to protect religious practices or parental rights may ultimately protect predators.
“Whatever our disagreements in American life about the proper role of government, surely we can all agree that the government should protect vulnerable children from sexual predators,” said Russell Moore, current president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Safeguarding children must be the concern of all of us,” he said. “Any law that provides a loophole for creepy men to exploit children should be reformed.”
Yes, it should.