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Tightening Maryland's law to stop underage marriage [Commentary]

According to a 2012 report by the United Nations Population Fund, one in three girls in developing countries outside of China will probably be married before they are 18, and one of nine girls will be married before she is 15.

The report predicts that in this decade, nearly 39,000 underage girls will be married worldwide every day.

Even more shocking is that some of these marriages still occur in our own backyard. Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit devoted to helping women and girls flee gender-based violence and forced marriages, found that between 2000 and 2015, more than 3,200 minors were wed in Maryland, 85 percent of whom were married to an adult spouse. In one particularly appalling instance, a 16-year-old was married to a man over 55.

Maryland’s family law code, section 2-301, states that 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with either parental consent, or if they have become pregnant or given birth to a child, and that 15-year- olds can marry with both parental consent and a pregnancy. This law, however, does not distinguish between parental consent and parental coercion, allowing for forced marriages.

Unlike an adult, a minor does not have the same access to domestic violence shelters or legal counseling to prevent or leave an unwanted marriage. Furthermore, child protective services often will not help child brides and may redirect the minor to her parent, who is often the victimizer.

In 2016 and 2017, Howard County state Del. Vanessa Atterbeary introduced a bill to raise the minimum marriage age to 18. When asked her rationale, Atterbeary responded, “Thousands of children, right here in Maryland, are being victimized and abused because of this [current] law.” Both times Atterbeary’s bill crossed gender, party and racial lines. Yet, older delegates who had married young themselves objected: they feared that similar happy couples might lose the right to marry.

Hoping to please both sides, Atterbeary will draw on Virginia and Texas legislation and introduce an emancipation clause for the upcoming session. These states outlaw marriage at 15 and under, and require 16- and 17-year-olds to be emancipated before marriage. An emancipation gives the child the legal status and rights of an adult, and allows the child the same legal services and resources as an adult. Therefore, if a child were forced into marriage, he or she has a means of escape.

Contrary to popular belief, child marriage occurs in nearly all communities regardless of cultures, religions or geography. Instances of child marriage have been found in Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular communities. Psychologist Cristina Bicchieri cites poverty, misguided community beliefs and traditional views about chastity as just a few of the reasons behind forced marriages.

Child marriage severely impacts a minor physically, mentally and socially. A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics states that child marriage is associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, unwanted pregnancies and childbearing issues. The same study found that U.S. child brides suffer more short and long-term mental illness than do women married as adults. Furthermore, child brides often leave school because of early pregnancies or perceived spousal duties, which often leads to social isolation and a compounding of the cycle of poverty which instigated the marriage.

In short, child marriage must stop. The Marriotts Ridge Girl Up club is devoted to advocating for girls’ rights and education and has formed a coalition of Girl Up clubs across Maryland to help end child marriage. Girl Up members will be appearing at local community centers to speak more about the issue. However, I urge all Howard County residents to get involved now; contact your legislators and send the message that child marriage must end, or raise your voice and sign our petition to end child marriage at https://tinyurl.com/endchildmarriagemd.

Michelle Yu is the president of the Marriotts Ridge Girl Up club and an intern for County Executive Allan Kittleman.

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