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UPDATE: This bill has now been approved by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and is effective on July 1, 2016.

It’s time to celebrate a historic week!

Tahirih-drafted legislation to protect children from coerced and forced marriage in Virginia is now on its way to the governor to be signed into law.

We were shocked to find that 4,500 children under age 18 (some as young as 13) were married in the state from 2004-2013. Child marriage can come with lifelong consequences, including lost educational opportunities and physical, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse.

Something had to be done to close dangerous loopholes in Virginia’s existing marriage laws — and protect girls in Virginia from irreparable harm. With your support, we made it happen!

This groundbreaking legislation ends marriage before age 18, except for minors age 16 or 17 who have been emancipated (given the legal rights of an adult) after a hearing before a judge who specializes in juvenile and domestic relations. For an overview of how the bill improves current law, please click here.

This approach leverages existing child protection safeguards, which are built into all emancipation proceedings. The judge would appoint counsel for the minor, and could order an investigation by the Department of Social Services or issue other orders as appropriate.

New safety-centered criteria would also apply to emancipation petitions based on a minor’s intent to marry. In order to grant the petition, parties to be married must be present, and the judge would have to find that:

  • The minor wants to get married and is not being forced or coerced;
  • The individuals are mature enough to decide to marry;
  • The marriage will not endanger the minor (looking at age differences, as well as any criminal record or history of violence); and
  • It’s in the minor’s best interests to marry.

If the petition is granted, very importantly, the minor would then be empowered with the legal rights of an adult to protect herself if she is abused (such as to leave home, go to a shelter, or file for a protective order or divorce).

This victory in Virginia for vulnerable girls is a crucial first step in a wave of reforms that we hope to see across the country.

Similar legislation has now been introduced in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey, where, as in many other states, marriage age limits are easily set aside through exceptions based on parental and/or judicial consent, or pregnancy.

Our pioneering research and advocacy — fueled by you and an army of allies like Unchained At Last, Hogan Lovells LLP, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia — is waking the country up to the disturbing reality that child and forced marriage is a problem right here in the United States. In the last few weeks, over 20 news outlets have featured stories on our efforts, including The New York Times, USA Today, and CBS News!

This week’s victory is a reminder of how far we’ve come in the movement to protect everyone’s right to decide whether, when, and whom to marry. It was just five years ago that we published the results of our nationwide survey — the first ever to highlight that forced marriage is a real problem in the U.S. — and launched our groundbreaking Forced Marriage Initiative.

Now, countless girls in Virginia will be able to choose and make their own futures, and much-needed and long-overdue reforms have been sparked in other states, too.

Tahirih is deeply grateful to the bipartisan legislators who answered our call to champion these critical reform bills, Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Senator Jill Vogel (R).

Child marriage is a problem not only in Virginia, but around the country. Similar bills to protect vulnerable children and teens are pending in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey.