There is currently heightened media attention to the trauma of forced child marriage. Meaningful prevention and intervention of this form of domestic violence should involve systems advocacy efforts, such as public education, community outreach, crisis hotlines, emergency shelter and legal advocacy. However, a national organization has been shopping a bill from state to state, with no communication with advocates on the ground, offering only one option — to ban marriage of youth under the age of 18 without exception. Good-hearted legislators seeking to help introduced such a bill this legislative session. Right before adjourning for the year, the Maryland General Assembly determined that this legislation is not the best solution to address this issue in our state. We firmly agree.
Current law states that 16- and 17-year-old youth can marry with either parental consent or a certificate from a licensed medical care provider stating that one of the individuals to be married is pregnant or has recently given birth. Those at age 15 are not allowed to marry unless they obtain both parental consent and the required medical certificate. The age of consent to sex in Maryland is 16, which is also the age at which the state’s statutory rape laws no longer apply. No one is allowed to be married under the age of 15.
The marriage ban bill pits two important reproductive justice issues against one another — the desire to eradicate forced marriage and the right to consensually create a family through marriage. Stripping young people of this human right should not be taken lightly. Advocates have cautioned legislators to not pass a law that will discriminate against youth who seek to marry according to their personal belief systems or to get away from families where abuse, neglect or criminal activity may exist. The desire to form a new family is stronger when parents are missing, incarcerated or deceased.
Reproductive justice calls for honoring and supporting youth if, how and when they choose to form their families. Each year in Maryland, approximately 900 young women under the age of 18 will give birth. Some in a consensual, loving relationship may choose to marry. Youth seek legal marriage for a variety of reasons, such as accessing a partner’s health insurance coverage, gaining priority for housing assistance, solidifying custody rights, receiving military spousal benefits or adhering to one’s cultural and religious norms. Although the one national group pushing for this ban seeks to prevent a child’s struggle against parents forcing her into marriage, the strategy ignores challenges an older youth may face when ostracized by her family for becoming pregnant.
An unexpected pregnancy can bring out the worst in families, triggering acts of violence, humiliation and rejection. The ban interferes with autonomous pregnancy and parenting decision-making as it blocks the option of marrying for those who fear unhealthy parental interference. No one has an interest in subjecting youth to reproductive coercion. Faced with abusive parents, a young person may choose to terminate a pregnancy for fear of being unable to provide her baby a safe home or be forced to surrender her child to adoption as a condition of her remaining in her home.
Proponents for the ban argue that youth can have a religious ceremony to demonstrate commitment or just delay marriage until both parties are at least 18 years old. How can we say that youth have agency, maturity and bodily autonomy to become parents — to make a life-affirming, 18-year commitment to raise a child — yet deny them the right to solidify co-parenting and gain important protections through legal marriage?
During last year’s attempt to pass the marriage ban bill, an amendment was heard on the House floor requiring that a licensed mental health care provider certify that a minor seeking a marriage license is not being forced or coerced. After a long, robust debate that cut across party lines, race, gender, religion and class, it was defeated by a mere eight votes, with four lawmakers abstaining. In our opinion, our legislators were looking for alternatives to the proposed bill.
We urge the Maryland General Assembly to not ignore the capacity of young people to act in their best interests by passing an outright ban on marriage. Instead, we should agree on a systems advocacy approach against forced marriage that will also respect the different maturity levels, familial support, cultural norms and individual circumstances of young people choosing legal marriage. We must try harder to suspend old notions of how all youth should act and meet youth where they really are.
Diana Philip (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.