WASHINGTON — Child marriages are still happening in America, but a Maryland lawmaker is fighting back and has vowed to reintroduce her child marriage bill after it failed last year in the Maryland legislature.
Maryland Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard County, introduced her new bill, HB 799, on Feb. 3 in hopes of ending child marriages in her state. The bill would make 18 the legal age to marry, no exceptions. Her new bill heads to a house committee hearing on Feb. 23.
In Maryland, a child can marry at the age of 15 only if there is parental consent and “the woman to be married” is pregnant or has a child, according to the Maryland Courts website. Teens ages 16 and 17 can marry if either one of the conditions are present.
“Most (child marriages) were girls marrying older men,” said Fraidy Reiss, who founded Unchained at Last, a nonprofit working to stop child marriages in America. The organization went state by state to retrieve data on the number of child marriages in the last decade. Reiss said that 12 states and the District do not track that data.
In Maryland, more than 3,100 children were married between 2000 and 2014, and 69 of the marriages started out as statutory rape according to the data. Five of those children were under the age of 15, but specific ages of the children are unknown, Reiss said. Nationwide, 250,000 children, some as young as 12 years old, were married between 2000 and 2010.
Virginia updated its child marriage law in 2016, making the legal age to marry 18 years old, and 16 if the child is emancipated by the court. Before the new law, children as young as 13 years of age could marry in the state. According to Reiss, the old law in Virginia allowed statutory rape suspects to marry their victims to avoid being prosecuted.
Reiss said that child marriage increases the child’s risk for domestic abuse and undermines the child’s health, education and economic opportunities.
“Child marriage is a human rights abuse,” Reiss said. “There should be no exceptions.”