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How Old Is Old Enough to Get Married?

States are raising the age of consent to protect children from forced marriage. No state has gone as far as Delaware.

Child marriages are more common than you think. Roughly 200,000 minors have gotten married since the start of the century. Nearly 90 percent of those child marriages involve a young bride, under the age of 18, and an older man -- sometimes decades older. Under such circumstances, says Arizona state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, “it’s not difficult to think of all the potential abuses.”

Legislators have heard testimony from women who were forced to marry their rapists when they were as young as 11. There have also been scattered reports of marriage being used as a tool in child trafficking. Ugenti-Rita sponsored a new law, enacted in April, which banned marriages for children under the age of 16, while requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to receive permission from their parents. When a minor is getting married, the age gap between the bride and groom, under the new law, can be no greater than three years. 

Advocacy groups such as the Tahirih Justice Center and Unchained At Last are pushing states to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18, without exceptions. Last month, Delaware became the first state to fully ban child marriage, even with parental approval. But it’s proving to be a tough sell elsewhere. Lawmakers have shown themselves open to imposing higher age limits and to adding safeguards for minors allowed to marry, such as parental consent. Florida and Kentucky both passed laws this year raising the floor for child marriages to 17 and 18, respectively, following similar actions taken since 2016 in Connecticut, New York, Texas and Virginia.  

States shouldn’t sanction relationships they would punish if marriage weren’t involved, opponents of child marriage contend. “Some even condone marriage when it results from statutory rape,” writes Nicholas Syrett, a University of Kansas professor and author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. “In many cases, district attorneys have been willing to waive prosecution if a girl’s statutory rapist agrees to marry her and her parents are also supportive.”

In Missouri, which has seen not only its own minors marry but also “tourist marriages” involving mostly girls brought in from out of state, state Rep. Jean Evans wanted to ban marriage under the age of 17. That turned out to be too strict a standard for many of her colleagues, but the House did pass a bill raising the age to 15. Kids who are 17 would need a parent’s approval, while 15- and 16-year-olds would have to get permission both from their parents and a judge. “The bill keeps the court in the loop,” says state Rep. Bill White, “to make sure the marriage is not coerced and is in the best interest of the kid, or kids.”

The fact that two kids may be marrying each other is one objection some legislators and religious groups have raised. They say the recent spate of child marriage bills are overly broad and harm responsible couples. If a young Romeo wants to marry his Juliet, why is that a problem for the state? 

The other concern that’s commonly raised about strict limits is that they may prevent a pregnant 16-year-old from marrying the father of her baby. “By denying them the ability to get married, we’re denying the children fathers or mothers,” says Arizona state Rep. David Stringer, who opposed Ugenti-Rita’s bill. “I don’t think the government should be stepping in and telling people the right age to get married.”

Given the concerns about abuses, however, the movement to curtail child marriage clearly has momentum. Child marriage laws are so lax as to be practically nonexistent in about half the states, but that’s changing fast. “We have age limits on voting, purchasing lottery tickets, alcohol and cigarettes,” Ugenti-Rita says. “Marriage should be no exception to that.” 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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