In the state of Virginia, a 13-year-old child can legally marry an adult twice her age, and all that’s needed is a clerk’s consent, provided she is pregnant and has parental consent.
That is expected to change this week, however, after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs reform legislation. If he signs the bill passed Tuesday, the Virginia law may be the first domino in a chain of legislatures around the nation.
Similar bills are in the works in New York (A. 8563), Maryland (H.B. 911), and New Jersey (A. 3091) where, as in many other states, marriage age limits set at 16 to 18 years old are easily set aside through exceptions based on parental and/or judicial consent, or pregnancy.
“Child pregnancy should trigger alarm bells, not wedding bells,” says Marlena Hartz, spokesperson for the legal advocacy group Tahirih Justice Center.
The national non-profit, founded to help women who are survivors of a wide range of violence, including forced marriage, recently analyzed marriage data from select states and found “disturbing results.” The group is working in partnership with Hogan Lovells, Unchained at Last, and the National Organization for Women (NOW).
“A child who’s 13 and pregnant — it’s rarely the case that the 13-year-old is marrying a 17-year-old,” said State Sen. Jill Vogel (R), who sponsored Senate Bill 415 in Virginia, to local media. “It’s more often the case that it is a child marrying somebody decades older than they are.”
Proponents of this legislation want to see it in all 50 states, because they say that victims of forced and child marriage can face severe and lifelong consequences — including physical, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse, mental health problems, and a loss of freedom to choose and make their own futures.
“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 counsel for Tahirih.
Featured Photo: By Kathy Kmonicek | Associated Press | Naila Amin, 26, holds a book from one of the classes she is taking at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Feb. 2. Ms. Amin, who was forced into marriage at the age of 15 to a 28-year-old cousin in Pakistan who beat and mistreated her, aspires to become a social worker and open a group home for girls trying to avoid or recover from forced marriages.