Lawmakers Target Underage Marriage Loophole

| by Nik Bonopartis

Virginia lawmakers want to close a loophole that allows children to get married.

States like Virginia and Maryland, which is considering a similar bill, already have laws on the books specifying that would-be spouses have to be at least 16-years-old. But a lesser-known exception allows younger children to marry with a judge's approval, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

“The common assumption we are seeing is the belief that child marriages don't happen that often – and when they do, it's believed they are Romeo-and-Juliet-aged peers, which is not what we are seeing happen here," says Jeanne Smoot, senior policy council for Tahirih, a group that helps domestic violence victims.

A study by Tahirih found that of almost 4,500 children married in Virginia between 2004 and 2013, about 200 of them were 15 or younger. The vast majority of those underage spouses, about 90 percent, were girls, according to the group.

In Maryland, the numbers are similar, with girls accounting for 85 percent of underage spouses. In one case, a 16-year-old girl was married off to a man in his late 30s, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Many of those child brides are forced into their marriages because of circumstances like unplanned pregnancies, Republican State Sen. Jill Vogel of Virginia told WTOP.

Vogel says it's "rarely the case that the 13-year-old is marrying a 17-year-old."

“It’s more often the case that it is a child marrying somebody decades older than they are," she said.

In Virginia, lawmakers said they hope to deliver a complete bill to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia in March. Democrats and Republicans support the bill in Virginia and in other states where advocates are making a push to end exemptions to minimum age laws for marriages.

Fraidy Reiss is the co-founder of Unchained At Last, a non-profit helping girls and women avoid and leave forced marriages.

“There has been no organized push-back against our efforts," Reiss told the Christian Science Monitor. "I don’t think anybody wants forced marriage to continue.”

Girls who are forced into marriages have no recourse against abuse, Vogel told WTOP, noting that girls younger than 16 cannot get an order of protection from a court and can't move into women's shelters.

“They are truly victims in every way,” Vogel said.

Can lawmakers successfully end child and forced marriages in the U.S.?
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