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Bring Maryland out of the dark ages by ending coerced teen marriages | COMMENTARY

To protect teenagers from being forced into marriage, Maryland lawmakers could pass legislation this session to raise the age people can legally get married.
To protect teenagers from being forced into marriage, Maryland lawmakers could pass legislation this session to raise the age people can legally get married. (Jasmin Awad / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm)

A pregnant 15-year-old from Delaware, a state that set the minimum age of marriage at 18, was brought to Maryland to marry a 22-year-old. This didn’t happen in 1953. It happened in 2018.

That’s because current Maryland law allows for children as young as 15 to marry with parental consent and if they are pregnant. Current law allows for 16- and 17- year-olds to marry if they have parental consent or if they are parenting. Our current law does not allow for a clerk of the court to intervene if they suspect a parent or a partner is coercing a minor.

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We have yet to meet a citizen who believes that Maryland’s current law is acceptable.

This is not a small problem. Nearly 3,500 minors were married in Maryland between 2000 and 2018. Of those minors, 85% were women. Some of these marriages subjected minors to sexual assault, human trafficking and other offenses against their minds and bodies. To add further harm, under Maryland’s current law, minors are not permitted to file for their own divorce, enter a shelter, or sign a contract. The minor is often left in a physically and mentally abusive marriage that they cannot escape.

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Child marriages lead to significantly harmful outcomes. The vast majority of girls who marry before the age of 18 face significant lifelong challenges. Marrying before 18 doubles the chances of living in poverty, leads to a 50% greater likelihood of dropping out of high school, increases the likelihood of domestic violence and 70% to 80% of these marriages are likely to end up in divorce.

Maryland law last changed in 1998 amid public outcry over a pregnant 13-year-old marrying a 29-year-old. We are still fighting to protect children 22 years later.

That’s why we introduced H.B. 1231 and S.B. 949. This is the fifth year a version of this legislation seeking to raise the minimum age of marriage has been introduced. What’s different now is that it represents a compromise. There are many in our state who believe the age floor should be raised to 18 with no exceptions. There are those who believe that changing Maryland’s law would lead to threats to women’s autonomy and choice. We have heard from and worked with both sides in crafting legislation that:

  • Raises the age of marriage to 17, no exceptions;
  • Provides for no more than a four-year age difference between potential partners;
  • Creates a judicial review process that ensures a judge can independently determine the health of a relationship, maturity of petitioners and potential presence of coercion or abuse from a petitioner’s parent or partner;
  • Ensures that a 17-year-old who successfully petitions for a marriage license is also emancipated

Marylanders know that there is rarely an easy answer, almost never a silver bullet policy solution to fix every problem facing our community. More often than not, the right answer lies somewhere in the middle. The legislation, as amended, takes both sides of this argument in order to make the strongest public policy possible. We stand as proud pro-choice legislators who also believe our current laws allowing child marriage are deeply flawed and harmful to young men and women. The General Assembly has made tremendous strides to protect children from the threats of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, yet this state has still condoned child marriage. Our legislation accomplishes a necessary balance and takes Maryland out of the dark ages.

Other states have recognized the importance of protecting children. Twenty-one states since 2016, the first year this bill was introduced, have moved to strengthen their minimum age laws.

The bills ensure that if a minor is marrying, he or she is making that decision for himself or herself rather than being coerced and, thanks to the amendments, is able to escape an abusive home. It ensures that the union of a pregnant 15-year-old and a 37-year-old is not sanctioned by a government contract.

The House is poised to H.B. 1231. The Senate and Maryland should also give their stamp of approval. This legislation is not about marriage but rather about protecting our children.

Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary (Vanessa@vanessaatterbeary.org) represents District 13 in Howard County. Senator Sarah Elfreth (Sarah@SarahElfreth.com) represents District 30 in Anne Arundel County.

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