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States Rethink Child Marriage in 2024

As several states propose child marriage bans, Missouri state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder hopes that she can use her experiences to encourage a shift in her state’s legislation.

women in wedding dresses on stairs in the washington state capitol protest child marriage
Unchained At Last, a group supporting bill HB 1455 to end child marriage in Washington state, meets with Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, left, who chairs the Senate Law & Justice Committee, inside the state Capitol building on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Olympia. The House passed the bill on the first day of session and it is now heading to the Senate and Dhingra’s committee.
(Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Seven states are currently looking to ban marriage for minors with no exceptions. In Missouri, legislation has been helmed, in part by state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a survivor of child marriage.

  • Pushback against this legislation comes from organizations and legislators concerned about government interference in marriage.

  • Rehder believes that her co-sponsored bill is “for the girls” and will help address the serious consequences underage brides face.

  • In 38 states, minors as young as 16 — 15 in Kansas — can be married.

    In four of those states, there’s no minimum age for marriage. In those states, with parental consent, minors of any age could potentially get married either to other minors or adults. (Survivor-led advocacy group Unchained At Last, in a 2021 article, noted that many of the child marriages they tracked in the United States between 2000 and 2018 took place between teenaged girls and older men.)

    Advocacy groups such as Unchained At Last and the Tahirih Justice Center have spent over a decade educating legislators and urging states to raise the age limits for marriage. These advocates have seen some success. Several states — Florida, Georgia, and Colorado — passed weaker measures to raise the age limits to 16 or 17 between 2017 and 2019. Other states — including Washington on the west coast and New York, Pennsylvania and a significant swathe of the upper East Coast — have banned child marriage entirely, capping the lowest age for marriage at 18.

    Thanks in part to the work of advocacy groups, at least seven states are rethinking child marriage entirely — with Virginia becoming the first Southern state to pass a total ban on child marriage early in April. These states have pending legislation in the past year that would ban marriage for everyone under the age of 18. Their goal is to close pre-existing loopholes that would allow minors to be married with parental permission or a judge’s sign off.

    Legislators in Missouri are trying to ban the practice entirely. Republican state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder is among the strongest voices in the campaign. Rehder draws on her experience as a survivor of child marriage — at 15, she married her 21-year-old boyfriend — to encourage a change in legislation. After all, she entered politics to make a change for people like her, people she felt weren’t being helped by the people in power. Rehder’s first win, back in 2013, came as a surprise to everyone because she was, as she recalls through a warm chuckle, “a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.”

    Missouri Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder
    Missouri Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Sikeston Republican, speaks on the Senate floor.
    (Courtesy Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder's office/TNS)
    Senator Rehder’s focus on raising awareness of potential harms against children in her state attracted attention through the local branch of the Zonta Club in Cape Girardeau, an international organization that seeks to “build a better world for women and girls.”

    “I’ve always been very forthcoming with my backstory in my Zonta group,” Rehder says. “And because it’s so unusual to find somebody with my story in politics, elected to their state house, they reached out to me and asked, ‘Would you consider passing a law to end child marriage’?” And for Rehder, there was only one answer: “Absolutely.”

    The current state legislation — which just passed its first vote in the Senate — is a collaborative effort between Rehder and her Democratic colleague Lauren Arthur. It is a return to familiar — and very personal — territory

    “Years ago, we tried this in the House,” remembers Rehder. “We had tried, at the time, to get [the age of marriage] to 18.” In 2018, Rehder had appeared on NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today show to raise awareness of what was, at the time, one of the most lenient laws on child marriage in the nation. At the time, Missouri allowed children as young as 15 to get married as long as only one parent signed off on it. Lawmakers passed a bill to raise the state’s marriage age to 16, but two other bills to further limit child marriage stalled.

    As state legislators turn to rethinking child marriage — from raising the age that teenagers can get married at, to keeping minors from marrying entirely — it remains rare to have a state pass legislation in one shot. Many bills proposed in the past six years didn’t make it out of committee.

    “This legislation is not sailing through anywhere,” says Unchained At Last founder Fraidy Reiss. “I guess the exception is Rhode Island where it passed on the first attempt.” Reiss and Sen. Rehder both agree that there’s no major pushback against the legislation either at the local level, in Missouri, or on the national level where Reiss’s organization monitors.

    According to Reiss, there’s “almost no opposition from the public” when anti-child marriage legislation comes to the table. Where Reiss does see pushback is from smaller fundamentalist groups that focus on “religious freedom” and “parents’ rights.”

    Legislative resistance is not uncommon. Former Idaho state Rep. Bryan Zollinger protested that legislation in his state “went too far” in involving the government in marriage. With time, other lawmakers have reconsidered their stances. Back in Missouri, Republican state Sen. Mike Moon — whose previous “no” vote on the 2018 bill and 2023 comments about preteen marriage gained national attention — voted in favor of the current Missouri bill.

    To Rehder, the bipartisan bill in Missouri and similar legislation proposed in other states is “for the girls.”

    “Statistics show that waiting to be married is when women have the best trajectory of success,” Rehder says. “When women get married as children, how many of those marriages end in divorce? How many have mental health problems?” On that point, in a 2022 review of scientific literature on the consequences of child marriage, researchers found severe mental health consequences such as depression, psychological distress, and even suicidal ideation or suicide attempts were a common theme.

    Rehder says married minors find themselves in a double bind. For those who get married at a young age with parental consent, divorce might not even be an option until years later. “You’re not at an age to sign a legally binding contract,” she says. “Yet we allow your parents to sign a lifelong commitment for you? That’s just wrong.”

    In Missouri, the bill that would enact a total ban on child marriage has passed the Senate and will be heading to the House.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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