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'Wide-open potential for abuse': States are ground zero in the fight against child marriage

A majority of states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to wed, and 17 states have no minimum age to marry, experts say.
Illustration of a man and girl standing in kitchen.
Katherine Lam / for NBC News

In 2017, when California state Sen. Jerry Hill heard about a local 12-year-old girl getting married to a 28-year-old man, he thought it was just a sick rumor.

“It’s one of those, ‘You’re kidding me, that’s not happening here,’” Hill told NBC News.

Then he learned the truth: It was happening, and it was legal.

Hill discovered that child marriages occur in California because, like in many states, there was no minimum age to wed, and in still other states, the laws set the age below age 18, even if one spouse is years or decades older. Often, sometimes all it takes for the child to marry is the permission of a parent or a judge.

“One parent said it was OK, a judge checks the box, and it was done,” Hill explained.

Across the country, laws allowing minors to wed are common, experts say. A majority of states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry, and 17 states have no minimum marriage age, according to Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that seeks to protect immigrant women and girls from violence.

Since 2016, 14 states have strengthened their marriage laws to set minimum ages and streamline the review process. But only seven have effectively banned child marriage, either by raising the marriage age to 18, with no exceptions, or carving out allowances for court-emancipated minors, who are considered legal adults.

Hill swiftly drafted a bill to make 18 the legal age to marry in California, thinking the community would be outraged, his colleagues angry and the issue quickly fixed.

But that wasn’t the case.

“I thought there would be a considerable amount of sympathy on the part of these young girls, in most cases, who were victims of child marriage,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “I felt there were some very compelling arguments that this would prevail. But the opposition came, and it was quite the surprise.”

Image: State Sen. Jerry Hill speaks on the floor of the Senate in Sacramento, California, on Aug. 27, 2018.
State Sen. Jerry Hill speaks on the floor of the Senate in Sacramento, California, on Aug. 27, 2018.Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

Hill’s bill to raise the marriage age to 18 came under opposition from some fellow lawmakers as well as civil rights and other advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Planned Parenthood. The final bill, which passed in 2018, placed strict guidelines on judges who approve such marriages, requiring them to interview the parties, gain consent from parents, and report any suspicious circumstances, and also mandated counties collect data on child brides; but opponents of child marriage still denounced the bill for failing to set an age minimum.

Experts, advocates and state lawmakers told NBC News that the California case illustrates a larger struggle happening in statehouses across the country; as the movement to ban child marriage gains momentum, activists often face pushback, a lack of awareness among lawmakers and legislative deadlock.

"It’s a problem that hurts children, and the laws facilitate that," Jeanne Smoot, the senior counsel for public policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, told NBC News.

‘Wide-open potential for abuse’

Despite that many states allow children to wed, the federal government considers marriage under the age of 18 in foreign countries a “human rights abuse” that “undermines” policies abroad. Earlier this year, a Senate report revealed for the first time the extent to which legal loopholes within the U.S. immigration system have enabled thousands of men to bring child brides or fiancées into the U.S. over the past decade.

Advocates note, however, that states, which issue marriage licenses, are the first line of defense against child marriage, an issue that mainly affects young girls. According to the advocacy group Unchained at Last, nearly a quarter of a million children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 — the majority of whom were young girls marrying older men.

“Just like most of America, legislators are surprised that child marriage is an issue in the U.S. and in their respective states,” said Amanda Parker, a senior policy expert at the AHA Foundation, a women's rights group founded by activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “If they don't realize that it’s something that it is happening in their state, they’re not going to focus on it.”

Hill said after he introduced his legislation to set the marriage age at 18, he received a lot of pushback and the result was a “watered down” law.

“I got opposition from mostly legislators who felt there should be no limit," he said. "They would say, ‘If you're going to limit this, what about if you're pregnant? You shouldn't be limiting that if a pregnancy is involved.’”

The state’s ACLU, meanwhile, argued that his bill "unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause," adding that the extent of the problem was unknown and that state law was sufficiently stringent because it already required parental and judicial approval. Other groups, like Planned Parenthood, agreed. The National Center for Youth Law, a youth advocacy organization, contended that there was not enough data to show there was a problem.

Former Missouri state Rep. Jean Evans, a Republican, said she also felt pressure to compromise on the issue. She worked for two years to ban child marriage in the state, which had no minimum age limit and was a destination spot for child brides, according to an investigative report by The Kansas City Star. When her bill passed in 2018, it made the minimum age for marriage 16 rather than 18.

“I just knew they would support the legislation,” Evans said, who is now the executive director of the state Republican Party, describing what she mistakenly thought when she took up the cause. But then she heard from fellow lawmakers who expressed concern about religious sects in the state that allow those under 18 to marry and about restricting young people in the military, who might deploy, from marrying.

“These people would say, ‘Oh, it’s two 16 year-olds, it's their business’,” she said. “It wasn’t two star-crossed lovers, it’s not Romeo and Juliet. It was a predatory marriage.”

Evans added, “But if you're making it 18 years old and you can’t get 50 percent of your caucus to vote for it, you have to look at changing things to get your cause on board.”

The final bill added a trade-off provision that barred those above age 21 from marrying anyone below 16, to prevent older men from exploiting young girls; it also required parental and judicial consent for marriages involving 16- or 17-year-olds.

“If our goal was to protect young women, then we did that,” Evans said.

Image: Illustration of young girl walking down church aisle.
Katherine Lam / for NBC News

Smoot, of the Tahirih Justice Center, told NBC News that the objections Hill and Evans faced are not uncommon in statehouses across the country.

“There may have been a thought that a pregnant teen was better off being married, but studies show that she may be worse off if she married before 18,” Smoot said, noting there are social, educational and economic strains on young girls who marry.

State lawmakers are unaware of the problem and how it can harm young women, which leads to hesitation to outlaw it completely, Smoot added.

“No. 1, they didn't realize that it’s as much of a problem that it is; No. 2, that it has these harmful effects; and No. 3, they didn't have any idea that the laws there on the books subject girls to these many risks and was open to manipulation by parents and predatory partners,” she said.

Smoot also noted that the crunch of the legislative session coupled with skepticism about the problem also forces lawmakers to compromise, such as in Missouri and California.

That keeps the allowable marriage age below 18 in many states and puts discretion in the hands of judges and parents.

“States where they have an age floor, maybe it's 16, or 16 to 17 years old, they have this wide-open potential for abuse for parents to pawn their daughters off to whoever will take them,” she said.

“A judge is not given guidance about what should trigger a denial and will often feel reluctant to deny,” so they are “maybe more likely to rubber-stamp or approve,” she added.

‘We have to pour on all the gas’

At least 10 states are currently considering legislation to raise the marriage age to 18, including Massachusetts.

State Rep. Kay Khan, a Democrat, told NBC News that the process there has involved less pushback and more education. Last year, she introduced a bill to ban child marriage, but it never came to a vote. This year, she re-filed the bill hoping to make the state one of the few that have curtailed the practice.

Khan, who chairs the state House's Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said people are surprised to learn that child marriages are permitted in the state and "want to know more."

“Whenever we talk to people, they have no idea and that this is a problem,” she said.

Advocates have worked with Khan to get the message out, and the lawmaker has created a task force to probe the issue. She told NBC News that her colleagues have been willing to listen to her, rather than oppose her efforts.

“I think that here in Massachusetts, the people I’m working with are very committed to keeping the bright line at 18,” she said.

Khan added that she would like to see her state become “an example, like Delaware and New Jersey,” which outlawed marriage to anyone younger than 18, with no exceptions, last year.

But Smoot said that as more survivors and advocates speak out, some states are showing themselves more willing to address the issue than others. In the latter instances, she said, “We have to pour on all the gas" to pressure lawmakers.

“We do think that the best solution is age 18, no exceptions,” she said. “I never think that it’s a good idea to pass a low-bar bill. I think it’s always best to pass the best possible bill. The years that you don't do anything, girls are being put at risk.”

Hill, the California lawmaker, said it is common for laws to tweaked in later legislative sessions, and he hopes his bill will be revisited down the road.

“Every piece of legislation is looked at through that lens, and you can amend it down the road and clean up language,” he said. “It’s not what we wanted, it’s not where we like to see California, but it’s much better than current practice.”

In other cases, states that don't push for marriage restrictions can face regional pressure from those that do, fearing they'll become destination jurisdictions.

“We are making progress, but I think the continued battle is to make sure it's not a tick-the-box kind of progress where the legislator can say, ‘We did something,’ Smoot said. “That ‘something’ has to be meaningful.”