Child marriage is finally illegal in Virginia — and other states may be on their way

Matrimonial minimum ages vary from state to state, but skew surprisingly young, putting girls in danger

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 8, 2016 8:32PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>Sean Pavone</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Sean Pavone via Shutterstock)

Bad news if you'd like to marry a child in the state of Virginia — as of this month, children under the age of 16 can no longer get hitched.

In case you thought that child marriage was a relic of bygone eras or an abusive practice that happens in other places, before July 1, 16- and 17-year-olds could marry with parental consent — and children even younger could wed with parental consent if the girl was pregnant. Relatedly, Virginia is one of the 37 states the mandate that its sex education curriculum include abstinence education. And according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, nearly 5,000 Virginia teenagers became new moms in 2014. 

In a conversation with William & Mary News this week, Vivian Hamilton, a professor at the school who worked on raising the state's marriage age, explained that "The new law does away with the most troubling, youngest marriages. By putting procedural safeguards in the way of 16- and 17-year-olds seeking to marry, we hope it will drastically reduce the occurrence of minors being coerced to marry."

And to prove that that's something that badly needed to happen, Hamilton went on to state that "In Virginia alone, almost 4,500 minors under age 18 were married between 2004 and 2013. Some 90 percent of minor spouses in Virginia were girls, and many of them married men significantly older than they were — sometimes decades older…. [The previous law] allowed abusers who could otherwise be prosecuted for statutory rape to evade prosecution by marrying their victims."

The UK's Independent reports that among the 4,500 girls under 18 who married in that time, "more than 200 of them were aged 15 or under." As Virginia Sen. Jill Vogel told WTOP back in March, "Someone… should be asking the question, 'Well if this 13-year-old is pregnant, isn’t that evidence of statutory rape?' Is that not a crime?" Vogel told the Washington Post this week of just such a case — a man in his fifties she says avoided Child Protective Services by persuading the parents of the high school student he was suspected of sexually abusing to consent to him marrying her. "Now they’re married, and there’s no crime," she said. "She dropped out of high school. Her life is ruined." 

The encouraging news is that these kinds of grim stories are now going to become less common — and not just in Virginia. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that similar bills have also been introduced this year in California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Yet right now matrimonial ages vary from state to state but skew preciously young — California currently has no minimum age for marriage with parental consent. In New York, the minimum age with parental consent is 14. And in New Hampshire, a bride can be as young as 13 (though her husband to be must be 14 or over). THIRTEEN.

In other words, there are plenty of places all across the country where a girl's parents can sign off for her to become a wife before she's even had her first period. Before she's even finished with middle school. Before she can vote. Or drive. Or obtain working papers. The economic, educational and emotional consequences are long term and often devastating.

But not everyone agrees that limiting these unions is a good idea. Sen. J. Chapman 'Chap' Petersen told the Washington Post this week that "Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if someone gets pregnant and they want to be married when the child is born, not being able to do that of their own volition without going to court, I thought that was a little bit overly aggressive." Yeah, I guess you could call encouraging girls to become wives and mothers while they're still children themselves than "old-fashioned." And as Del. Jennifer L. McClellan explains, "Sex with a child is illegal, but the way the marriage laws worked, if you were under 16 and pregnant, rather than punishing your assailant, you were allowed to marry them."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Child Marriage Jill Vogel Marriage Sexism Virginia Vivian Hamilton