Jennifer McClellan: Virginia's child marriage laws cry out for reform

Jennifer L. McClellan

Sen. Jill Vogel and I have introduced legislation this year to address the very serious but overlooked issue of child marriage.

With some exceptions, you must be 18 to marry in Virginia. When both parties are adults, they can better navigate the serious — and ideally lifelong — commitment that marriage entails. They also have equal access to a number of rights, privileges, and protections when things go wrong. If the marriage turns abusive, an adult victim can leave home, go to a shelter, get a protective order, or file for divorce.

But what happens when children are allowed to marry? In Virginia, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent. Children under 16 can marry with parental consent and evidence of pregnancy.

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If you’re thinking this rarely happens, and only in “Romeo and Juliet” situations between love-struck kids, think again.

Between 2004 and 2013, 4,500 children were married in Virginia.

About 90 percent of them were girls.

Nearly 90 percent married adults, one-third of whom were 21 or older.

Over 200 were 15 or younger.

Many involved a spouse significantly older than the child, sometimes decades older:

  • Nearly 50 16-year-olds married spouses more than 14 years older.
  • Twenty-five 15-year-olds married spouses more than 10 years older.
  • Thirteen children under age 15 married spouses more than 20 years older.

The youngest bride was 13.

A pregnant 13-year-old should have raised alarm bells, since sex with a 13-year-old is a crime. She shouldn’t have been given a license to marry the man who assaulted her. Social services should have been called and an investigation initiated. But instead, she was relegated to being another invisible, forgotten, neglected child bride.

At one time, the subsequent marriage would have been a defense to the crime of sex with a child under 14. That defense was repealed in 2008 as a result of legislation I sponsored. But marriage can trap the victim in an abusive relationship with no avenue to advocate for or protect herself because children who marry are not automatically emancipated, and therefore do not have the legal rights of an adult. If children are abused by their spouse, they cannot get a protective order, and Child Protective Services cannot intervene.

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Virginia’s marriage laws are out of step with its laws criminalizing sex with a child and other child-protection laws and policies. They also put the commonwealth well behind other states.

The effects of child marriages have a lasting impact on the individuals involved, and on society as a whole. One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of abuse from a dating partner, and girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average. Within a marriage, where a girl can be easily isolated from anyone who can help, she may be exposed to that risk round-the-clock.

Moreover, between 70 to 80 percent of marriages involving a child end in divorce. For teen mothers, getting married and later divorcing can more than double the likelihood of living in poverty, making them worse off than their counterparts who never married.

A girl’s education can be interrupted or discontinued when she marries, limiting her ability to become financially independent in the event of domestic violence or divorce. Girls who marry before the age of 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college. Finally, a major study of women who married as children in the U.S. found they experienced higher rates of psychiatric disorders and were more likely to seek health services.

Particularly disturbing is the intersection between child marriage and a broader problem of forced marriage. A 2011 national survey by the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based non-profit legal advocacy agency, identified as many as 3,000 forced-marriage cases encountered by service-providers across the U.S. over a two-year period, many involving girls under age 18. Since then, Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative staff has handled 17 cases in Virginia, about half of which involved girls under age 18.

The legislation Senator Vogel and I have introduced will limit marriages to individuals 16 years of age and older, and provide new, broader grounds for legal emancipation.

This change will significantly improve the health and safety of teens who marry — by shielding the youngest and granting older teens the full protections of the legal system available to married adults. I am gratified to see a growing bipartisan consensus around these difficult issues, and I will continue to work alongside the passionate advocates for children and families to help make this important legislation a reality.