This Wednesday, Delaware Governor John Carney signed into law a bill that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, making Delaware the first state in the US to ban child marriage outright. Previously, a child of any age could have married in Delaware with a judge’s approval.
The ban has already taken effect, and Delaware is now unique as the only state where those under 18 cannot marry under any circumstances. All 49 other US states and the District of Columbia allow children to marry under certain conditions, usually through parental consent or approval from a judge.
In Delaware alone, nearly 200 minors married between 2000 and 2011 according to state data. 90% of them were girls.
PBS Frontline reports that this is a victory against forced child marriage:
“This is such a huge victory for women and girls,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained At Last, an organization that has been campaigning to end child marriage in the U.S.
Delaware’s historic move comes as other states have begun to rethink laws that allow minors to marry. Advocates say that decades-old laws fail to protect vulnerable youths who might be pressured or even forced into unions.
The bill in Delaware won bipartisan support and passed unanimously in the Senate. However, it faced some opposition in the House of Representatives.
Ken Boulden, a clerk of the peace, which oversees the issuing of marriage licenses, says he fought to change the law after he was asked to approve a marriage between a pregnant 14-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man. The girl’s mother came to give permission, but Boulden says he could not bring himself to marry the two.
He asked them to come back in a few days, by which time he had called the police to arrest the man for statutory rape.
“I’ve had people die in my office. I’ve had a birth take place here,” he said. “I’ve had people walk out in the middle of ceremonies because they got cold feet. But the one vision that will stay with me the rest of my life is the look on that little girl’s face when she knew she was in safe hands.”
Other states across the US are also taking steps to address forced child marriage. New Jersey’s Assembly will consider a similar bill this month. In March, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott signed a law to raise the minimum age for marriage to 17. Tennessee has passed a similar ban that is awaiting approval from the governor. This month, New Hampshire also passed a bill to raise the minimum age to wed to 16 for both genders.
Reiss added that Delaware’s new law shows that lawmakers are at last taking this issue seriously. “In the age of the ‘Me Too’ movement, we’re finally getting our elected officials to recognize that girls have value.”
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