If only. …How often have those of us working with survivors tortured ourselves with that question, as our last conversation with a client replays itself in our minds and we wonder what more we could do to change not only the present danger she faces, but also her whole life trajectory?
For once, there’s a clear answer – to prevent children from being forced into marriages, and the devastating harms of forced and child marriages, we can change Virginia’s laws to set the legal age of consent to marry at 18, and get rid of all exceptions other than for emancipated minors (legal adults).
Virginia already has a criminal law against forced marriage. But victims of family violence rarely want to prosecute their loved ones, and forced marriage is no different. Our civil laws need to provide additional defenses against forced marriage that individuals at risk can actually leverage.
We know that setting the marriage age at 18 is not a magic wand to end all forced marriages. Many other reforms also have to happen. But it is a powerful first step, for prevention as well as public education about what “full and free consent” to marriage really means.
And 18 is a magic age under Virginia law, when a girl is freed from legal limitations that otherwise block her self-help escape routes – at 18, for example, she can freely meet with a counselor, attorney or advocate; leave home; access shelter; and file petitions for protective orders or seek a divorce. So it is the first age she has any real agency to resist or escape a forced marriage.
Right now, Virginia has one of the most lax regimes in a 50-state patchwork of appalling marriage age-of-consent laws. Marriage license applications are granted by a court clerk upon evidence of parental consent (for 16 and 17 year olds) or parental consent and pregnancy (for those age 15 and younger). We’re one of only 10 states with a pregnancy exception, and in the minority that have no absolute minimum age. Such provisions actually facilitate forced marriages.
If this doesn’t trouble you, maybe you assume there are not many forced or child marriages here; that child marriages mostly involve love-struck teen couples; or that child marriages are not such cause for concern. Not so, on all counts – here is what we know:
- Tahirih Justice Center’s 2011 national survey identified as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage over a 2- year period, many involving girls under age 18. Our Forced Marriage Initiative staff have handled 16 cases in Virginia, about half of which involved girls under age 18.
- From 2004-2013, nearly 4,500 children were married in Virginia, over 200 at age 15 or younger. Still more alarming *1:
- Children as young as 13 were married*1;
- Nearly 90% of these marriages were to an adult spouse;
- Between 30-40% of those adults were age 21 or older; and some were decades older.
(VA Health Dept. correspondence with author, and Statistical Reports and Tables, Marriages and Divorces)
Similar statistics from New York and New Jersey, where judges are involved, reveal they cannot be counted on to safeguard children.
- Forced marriage happens in families of diverse socio-economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds; motivations vary; and force, fraud, and coercion tactics are wide-ranging (see Tahirih survey). Extreme emotional abuse is common, and can include threats from “I’ll kill myself” to “You will be dead to us and on your own” if the victim doesn’t submit. Families may also monitor/limit a victim’s movements, communications, and access to potential “helpers” like friends or teachers. Physical violence and threats of violence are also common.
- Abusive partners can also force a victim into marriage. Rape is both a consequence of forced marriage, and a cause, especially for adolescents whom we know are more likely to be coerced the younger they are (see HHS report, p. 1). Likewise, intimate partner violence can be both a consequence and cause of forced marriage (see Tahirih survey and Gangashakti study). One in three U.S. girls 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 (see loveisrespect.org factsheet). So families who force girls to marry when they find they are sexually active or pregnant, or to pre-empt sexual activity outside of marriage, are not likely protecting them from rape and abuse – but instead exposing them to that risk 24-7.
- Girls who marry young face other serious harms, too, as documented in a 2012 article by Professor Vivian Hamilton of William and Mary Law School: 70-80% divorce rates and greater instability post-divorce; discontinued education, low wages, and higher likelihood of poverty (including because they tend to have more children, earlier, and more closely spaced); more mental health problems and worse physical health.
Changing the minimum legal age of marriage in Virginia to try to prevent the profound and lifelong harms above is a simple proposition, one that comes with minimal imposition for genuine couples who have to wait a few more years to tie the knot.
How often do we get such a chance? If only.
To learn more about Forced Marriage in the U.S., or to request help with a case, visit www.preventforcedmarriage.org or contact FMI@tahirih.org to share your own experiences with forced and child marriages.
Jeanne Smoot is the Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, where for over a decade she has helped lead innovative advocacy initiatives to reduce vulnerabilities of immigrant women and girls to violence and to empower them as survivors.
*1: This entry has been edited with corrections per author’s request on February 17, 2016.
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