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Bill limiting child marriage introduced for sixth time; advocates voice support at Annapolis Moms meeting

State Del. Vanessa Atterbeary again introduced a bill this session to raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland — an effort that has failed for five consecutive years.

Atterbeary, D-Howard, and state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis, filed the bill the sixth time requiring teenagers to be at least 17 years old to get legally married. Under state law, 15-year-olds can marry in the case of pregnancy or birth of a child if they have parental consent. And 16- and 17-year-olds only need parental consent.

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Senate Bill 173 and House Bill 242 would allow 17-year-olds to get married to spouses four years their senior, at most. Teenagers younger than 17 would have to wait.

The stipulation protects young girls from being pressured into marrying much older men, Elfreth said.

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Teenagers of age to get married would also have to undergo a judicial review process that would expose coercive and abusive relationships, Elfreth added. Teenagers would be appointed an attorney, undergo the review process ensuring their decision to marry is independent, and be emancipated from their parents.

Under current law, 15-year-olds who are married are too young to open a credit card, sign an apartment lease or file for divorce. Shelters face legal charges for harboring a minor if they accept girls who run away from home.

“You have no rights as an adult, even though you are married” Elfreth said. “This bill says that ... you would need to be emancipated as an adult so you could get out of a potentially abusive situation.”

Proponents of the existing age limit say teenagers who are mature enough to start a family should be able to. But advocates against child marriage say the majority of teenage marriages involve minor girls to older men. National statistics show about 80% of minor marriages end in divorce, pushing girls and young women, who often stop their education after marriage, into poverty, said Donna Pollard, a child bride survivor.

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Pollard, who was married to a 31-year-old at age 16, joined an Annapolis Moms meeting Saturday to explain how the state law can lead to nefarious consequences when young adults are married.

“The majority of these cases are happening with girls that were very much in a situation similar to mine, where they are, again, teenagers marrying older adult men,” Pollard said. “And these older adult men not only have access to continue victimizing this child, but then they also have access to the baby that that child is pregnant with.”

Pollard, who created the nonprofit Survivors Corner, said states where child marriage is allowed “is literally granting a pedophile a marriage license to hide their offenses behind.”

Annapolis Moms, an online community group in Anne Arundel County with 13,000 members, raised awareness for the issue and pending legislation by inviting Pollard and other advocates for child brides to a Zoom discussion Saturday.

Diana Love, director of Annapolis Mom’s philanthropy efforts, helped organize the discussion after reading that Maryland tried to pass a similar bill five times and “couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Casey Swegman, a manager of the Forced Marriage Imitative at nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, said Saturday Maryland’s antiquated law has turned the state into a regional destination for child marriage.

Although the bill has failed repeatedly in Maryland, similar legislation limiting marriage age has found success in 26 other states. Virginia was the first state in 2016 to raise the age limit to 18 with an exception for emancipated 16 and 17 year olds. Four more states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Minnesota and Delaware, have fully banned child marriage by setting the limit for a marriage license at 18.

Elfreth believes the 2021 bill has a promising chance of success this session because it was revised with input from organizations that traditionally opposed it, such as the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.

The bill now awaits approval from the Senate Judicial Committee before it moves to a floor vote.

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