For the fourth year in a row, Maryland’s legislature has ended its session without passing much needed legislation to fix the state’s child marriage problem.
Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary has championed reform bills in every session since 2016, and each year her legislation garnered broad bipartisan support in the state’s House of Representatives before being stymied by the Senate.
This year was no exception. The House passed Delegate Atterbeary’s bill limiting marriage to legal adults with a vote of 136 to 4. Yet despite courageous testimony given by Maryland survivors of child marriage, the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee amended the bill to allow for broad exceptions to the rule, essentially gutting the legislation of any meaningful protective mechanisms. Once again, the legislative session came to a close before an effective compromise could be reached, leaving Maryland’s children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation for another year.
Since 2016, 16 other states have strengthened their minimum marriage age laws. While Maryland failed to take action, Virginia, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Delaware, New Jersey, and Ohio all effectively ended child marriage – either by setting a minimum marriage age of 18 without exceptions, or by limiting marriage to adults over 18 and court-emancipated minors. Other states are poised to do the same this year: a bill to end child marriage is currently awaiting the governor’s signature in Georgia, and 9 more states have bills to end child marriage pending.
“Bottom line, it’s pretty appalling that Maryland, in four legislative sessions hasn’t been able to accomplish what more than a dozen states have knocked out in a single session. It’s just truly disturbing that Maryland hasn’t acted to address what was squarely put to them as problems in their laws that put girls at serious risk of lifelong trauma,” said Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy
As the movement to end child marriage continues marching forward, Maryland risks becoming a destination for the exploitation of children through marriage. In fact, since Virginia became the first to reform its laws in 2016, there have been an increasing number of Virginia resident minors getting married in Maryland. In 2016 and 2017 a total of 164 minors were married in Maryland; 65 of them had been brought from out of state to be wed.
Every year the Maryland Senate fails to act, scores more children will be married and, more likely than not, face exploitation and abuse as a result of Maryland’s antiquated laws.
Tahirih is grateful to the courageous survivors, advocates, and lawmakers who drive this movement forward. We look forward to the day when Maryland takes action to protect girls from the harms of forced and child marriage.