Bipartisan legislators who ended child marriage in five states call on their colleagues in the other US states to follow their lead.
Child marriage creates a legal trap for minors, who often cannot file for divorce.
Don't cave to loopholes or compromises; there is no reason for marriage before age 18.
State Representative Kim Williams has served in the Delaware General Assembly since 2012.
Senator Sandy Pappas has served in the Minnesota Senate since 1990.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.
We ended a human rights abuse in our five states. And now we, a bipartisan group of state legislators, call on lawmakers in the remaining 45 states to do the same. End child marriage - an archaic, sexist practice that destroys girls' lives - even if you get the pushback we got at first.
Unless you live in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Rhode Island, child marriage is legal in your state. In our states, we partnered with the nonprofit organization Unchained At Last to close the dangerous legal loopholes that allowed it.
Child marriage is a nightmare of a legal trap
Nearly 300,000 children were married legally in the United States between 2000 and 2018, Unchained found. Most were girls wed to adult men with an average age difference of four years. Nearly all were age 16 or 17, though a few were as young as 10.
Even for the most mature 17-year-olds, marriage creates a nightmarish legal trap. They can be entered into marriage by a parent and/or a judge, with little or no input from them, before they even have the basic legal rights to navigate a contract as serious as marriage.
Minors typically cannot leave home to escape from parents planning an unwanted wedding or leave an abusive spouse until they are 18. They also usually cannot enter a domestic violence shelter, since these shelters usually turn away unaccompanied minors.
Children cannot easily retain an attorney, since contracts with children, including retainer agreements, typically are voidable. They usually cannot even file for divorce independently. Minors typically are not allowed to bring a legal action in their own name.
Even when it is not forced, marriage before 18 is a human rights abuse, according to the US State Department. It destroys nearly every aspect of American girls' lives, from their education and economic opportunities to their health. It also triples a girl's risk of experiencing domestic violence.
Child marriage also undermines statutory rape laws. Some 60,000 marriages since 2000 occurred at an age or with a spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime, according to Unchained.
Don't cave to compromise. End child marriage.
Do not compromise. Do not replace one loophole with another; insist on a marriage age of 18 - or higher if the age of adulthood is higher in your state - without exceptions. There is no room for negotiation when you are ending a human rights abuse.
You will hear, as we did, from legislators and others whose grandmothers married at 14. Remind them that the world has changed since grandma was a kid.
You will hear arguments about young love. Respond by asking what harm comes to a young couple if they wait a matter of months to marry. Minors must wait until 18 to enter almost any other contract, regardless of how passionately they feel about it.
But what if a girl is pregnant, some will ask you. If the girl is too young to consent to sex, we should investigate a rape, not plan a wedding. Either way, we would be harming, not helping, if we married off pregnant girls. Studies show teen mothers in the US who marry are more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability than teen mothers who stay single.
A teen mother who wants to co-parent with the father of the baby can easily do so outside of marriage. He can simply establish paternity, and his insurance and other benefits would cover the baby. We no longer have illegitimacy laws that punish babies born "out of wedlock."
Do not be swayed by the religious argument. We do not know of any religion that requires child marriage; actually, several major religions have supported legislation to end child marriage. Besides, the US Supreme Court has upheld laws that incidentally forbid an act required by religion, if the laws do not target religious practice.
Ending child marriage does not impact reproductive rights. The US Supreme Court has established that states should treat minors' abortions differently from minors' marriage, because the former is time sensitive while the latter is not.
Do not agree to a loophole that allows emancipated minors to be subjected to a human rights abuse. Emancipation is for teens who cannot be reunited with their parents; it gives them some rights of adulthood so they can fend for themselves. Teens do not need marriage to fend for themselves.
Teens do not need marriage, period. If they are in an abusive home or cannot get health insurance from their parents, they deserve resources that do not require them to enter a contractual sexual relationship.
Under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, the US joined 192 other countries in promising to end child marriage by 2030. We have achieved that goal in five states so far, despite initial resistance from our colleagues.
Now we urge our fellow lawmakers in the 45 other states: Please join us. Every child in the US is relying on us to keep our promise to the world and end all marriage before 18. No exceptions. No compromises.
Delaware Rep. Kim Williams
Delaware Former Sen. Anthony Delcollo
New Jersey Sen. Nellie Pou
New Jersey Asm. Nancy Munoz
Pennsylvania Rep. Perry Warren
Pennsylvania Rep. Jesse Topper
Pennsylvania Sen. John Sabatina
Minnesota Sen. Sandra Pappas
Minnesota Rep. Kaohly Her
Rhode Island Rep. Julie Casimiro
Rhode Island Sen. John Burke
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