Child Marriages Banned in Virginia

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Law & Policy

Child marriages banned in Virginia.  A new law in that state sets the minimum age to wed at 18, or 16 if a child is emancipated by court order. Parents and pregnancy are no longer part of the equation..

This does away with the old law that allowed a girl 13 or younger to marry if she was pregnant or had parental consent.

The change is aimed at curbing forced marriage, human trafficking and statutory rape disguised as marriage. Activists say the previous law created a “fast-track to child marriages” for abusers who could evade investigation by child-welfare officials by simply marrying their victims.

Nearly 4,500 children under age 18 were married in Virginia from 2004 to 2013, according to data from the state’s Department of Health. That includes more than 200 children age 15 or younger. About 90 percent of the underage spouses were girls; in many cases, the girls married men age 21 or older, and sometimes the men were decades older, data show.

Those daunting statistics motivated the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center, an initiative to end forced marriage in the United States, to work to get the laws changed through a rare bipartisan effort.

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) and Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) sponsored identical bills that passed during this year’s legislative session, despite some opposition. Bills were also introduced in California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.

Jeanne Smoot with Tahirith: “We hope that legislators will see the efforts in Virginia as a wake-up call about how their laws can facilitate forced marriages of children.”

Vogel learned about the issue when constituents in an affluent part of her Northern Virginia district came to her when a man in his 50s was suspected of having sex with a high school student.

Soon child-protective services investigated. Vogel explained that the man wooed the parents and married the girl.  Consequently there was not a possibility of prosecution. He had done this once before, and the earlier marriage ended in divorce.

“Now they’re married, and there’s no crime,” said Vogel, a lawyer who is running for lieutenant governor. “She dropped out of high school. Her life is ruined.”

In the cases of child marriage, Smoot said, they are 50 percent less likely to finish high school, four times less likely to go to college and more likely to have children sooner and more closely spaced than people who marry as adults. 

Child brides are also more prone to mental and physical problems and have a divorce rate of as high as 80 percent.

McClellan says, “Sex with a child is illegal, but the way the marriage laws worked, if you were under 16 and pregnant, rather than punishing your assailant, you were allowed to marry them.”

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