February 20, 2020
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Child marriage bill needs a re-do

Sunday Alamba | AP
Sunday Alamba | AP
In this Saturday, July 20, 2013, file photo, a woman protests against underage marriage in Lagos, Nigeria. Child marriage affects nearly 15 million girls around the world.

What would you say if the Maine Legislature passed a bill to end a human rights abuse, but the bill failed to protect 96 percent of the people impacted by the abuse?

That is what happened with LD 545 , the well-meaning bill ambitiously titled “An Act to Ban Child Marriage.” In fact, the bill would ban child marriage only for those 15 and younger. Children aged 16 and 17 would still be allowed to marry with parental “consent,” even though national marriage license data we’ve compiled at the nonprofit group Unchained At Last shows some 96 percent of the children who married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 were age 16 or 17.

Parental “consent” is meaningless. In my experience as Unchained At Last’s founder and executive director, when someone is forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents, and parental “consent” is actually parental “coercion.” Even when a 16- or 17-year-old sobs and begs for someone to prevent an unwanted marriage, clerks often have no authority to intervene.

A child, whether age 7 or 17, can too easily be forced into marriage or forced to stay in an abusive or unwanted marriage. Children have limited or no ability to leave home (an unmarried child who leaves home is a “runaway”) or to enter a domestic violence shelter (I have found that domestic violence shelters across the U.S. typically turn away unaccompanied minors because of the legal liabilities minors bring). Children usually cannot stay at a youth shelter without their parents’ consent.

Children also cannot easily retain an attorney to help them overcome these obstacles, because most contracts with minors, including retainer agreements, are unenforceable. They cannot obtain a driver’s license unless their parent or adult spouse signs for them, which can give their spouse inordinate control over them.

Perhaps most shockingly, children in many cases may bring a legal action only through a guardian, next friend or guardian ad litem. That appears to mean they cannot independently file for divorce or seek a protective order against an abusive spouse.

Per case law, married children in Maine are automatically emancipated. However, this emancipation is not codified in statute, which creates confusion about whether a child, once married, would still face all these obstacles.

Whether it is forced or not, child marriage destroys American girls’ lives — and most of the children who marry in the U.S. are girls wed to adult men. Child brides are 50 percent less likely to finish high school and four times less likely ever to finish college. They are three times more likely to have five or more children and 31 percent more likely to end up in poverty. They face a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes and stroke, and an increased risk of psychiatric disorders. Globally, child brides are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouse.

Perhaps this explains why the U.S. State Department has called marriage before 18 a “human rights abuse.”

Here in Maine, which for a long time did not collect marriage license data, U.S. census data shows that, as of 2014, an estimated 148 children age 15 to 17 had already been married.

New Jersey, Delaware and American Samoa passed simple legislation in 2018 that ended all marriage before 18. The Virgin Islands just passed the same bill, and the governor there has promised to sign it. Several other states are moving the same legislation, including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, with many more planning to do so in the 2020 legislative cycle.

Indeed the whole world has pledged to end child marriage by 2030, under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.3.

Surely Maine, too, can ban child marriage, without forsaking 96 percent of those impacted by this human rights abuse that destroys girls’ lives. Please join me in urging Gov. Janet Mills to veto LD 545 so the Legislature can introduce a bill that eliminates all marriage before 18.

Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor and the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that works to end forced and child marriage in the United States.

 


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