Leaders in a dozen states across the nation are examining a question that seems more suited to a developing nation: When is it too young for a child to marry?
New York, Texas, Virginia and Connecticut each adopted new laws that boost the minimum marriage age to 18 but allow slightly younger teens to marry with parental or judicial consent. Several other states are considering legislation along the same lines.
But it’s a tough sell.
“One of the things that shocks me about all this is the push back from legislators in the United States,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a non-profit seeking to end child marriage. “The U.S. State Department considers marriage before 18 a human rights abuse because of what it does to girls and how it destroys girls’ lives. So we are talking about a human rights abuse. It shouldn’t be this difficult to end.”
William & Mary Law School Professor Vivian Hamilton, who published a 2012 study on adolescent marriage and worked to change Virginia’s law, said the push back from state lawmakers is two-fold.
“There is still a belief that if a girl becomes pregnant, even if she is a minor, it’s preferable that she marry the father rather than have a non-marital child or terminate the pregnancy,” Hamilton said. “I think another source of push back is just concern for the individual liberty of these adolescents, to respect the fact that they have the ability to make this decision and decide the course of their lives in this way.”
Unchained At Last thought victory was at hand in New Jersey when lawmakers pushed through a ban on marriage before 18, only to see Republican Gov. Chris Christie veto it. Reiss led a group of protesters with their mouths taped shut to the state capitol to protest the veto.
Christie, who will leave office in January, signaled in his veto message that he’d consider a ban on marriage before age 16 and lesser restrictions on marriage for 16- and 17-year-olds.
“I agree that protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state,” Christie wrote in his veto message.
An investigation by this newspaper found thousands of girls age 17 or younger got married in Ohio between 2000 and 2015, including 59 who were 15 and younger. The newspaper tracked down a 29-year-old woman, Tessi Siders, who married 48-year-old Richard Siders when she was 14.
Like most child brides, Tessi Siders got married after she became pregnant.
In Ohio, girls as young as 16 can get married and boys 18 and over. But there are exceptions, such as if the girl gets pregnant. Marriages involving underage boys or girls require parental approval first and then approval by a juvenile court. The probate court then issues the license.
Ohio leaders seem reticent to change the law, and some didn’t even want to discuss it. Interview requests made to the Ohio Senate and Gov. John Kasich were declined.
State Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, who has practiced family and juvenile law for nearly two decades, said after looking at Ohio’s child marriage numbers, he believes the issue deserves more study.
Ohio has seen the number of child marriages decline in recent years and the most likely reason is a drop in the rate of teen pregnancies, which has steadily dropped in Ohio and nationally. A recent national Guttmacher Institute study of adolescent pregnancies found the pregnancy rate among 15- to 19-year-olds reached historic lows in the U.S. in 2013.
The principle reason for the decline, the authors concluded, is improved contraceptive use. They found no evidence sexual activity had declined.
‘It hurts our citizens’
When young girls do get pregnant, researchers like Hamilton say they are led to believe marriage is the only alternative. Yet her research shows that women who marry as minors tend to fare worse physically, mentally and economically than those who wait. About 80 percent of adolescent marriages do not last, according to the study.
“We encourage people to marry. States encourage people to marry,” said Hamilton, who argues that states should adopt a ban on marriage before age 18. “We subsidize marriage because we as a society we consider it a social institution that benefits our citizens. But the empirical evidence shows that child marriage doesn’t provide those same benefits. Instead, it hurts our citizens, particularly the most vulnerable of them.
“It tends to be most harmful to young, adolescent girls and their children,” she said.
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