- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2016

ANNAPOLIS | Since 2000, more than 3,000 children in Maryland have been married, overwhelmingly teenage girls. Almost 150 of those children were 15, and state records showed six children were younger than 15.

Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary said that all needs to stop: The Howard County Democrat is pushing to make the legal age of marriage in Maryland a bright-line 18, with no exceptions for anyone younger.

“I thought, certainly child marriage is not a problem in America,” Ms. Atterbeary said. “And it is.”

In Maryland, the minimum age of marriage is 18, but there are exceptions. Children 16 or 17 can get married with parental permission or if they are pregnant, and 15-year-olds can marry if they have both parental permission and evidence of a pregnancy.

Supporters of Ms. Atterbeary’s legislation said Thursday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing that those pregnancies could be the result of sexual assault, and parents could be coercing their children to marry their rapists or an adult for religious or cultural reasons.

“Child marriage undermines girls’ health, education and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit that advocates against child marriages.

At least 69 15-year-olds in Maryland married someone who committed a statutory sex crime against them between 2000 and 2014, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. The center also tracked cases in which girls married men who were decades older. In 2005, a 16-year-old girl married a man in his early 40s; in 2012, a 16-year-old married a man in his mid-30s.

Lawmakers were shocked to learn that child marriages in the U.S. are a problem but expressed concerns about the feasibility a bright-line rule.

Delegate Pamela Queen, Montgomery Democrat, pointed to couples in which one person was 18 and in the military and the other was 17. Such couples should be able to get married so the dependent could have military spouse benefits, she said, suggesting an exception for couples whose age difference is less than three years.

But other lawmakers said that while they want to combat statutory rape, they could not support the bill without exceptions that take into account cultural and religious differences in marriage.

“I’m in rural Maryland. We have a lot of farmers, we have Mennonite people, Amish people,” said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican. “A lot of times, they end up getting married earlier. And if the parents are fine with that, why would we say by law, you can’t get married earlier?”

Virginia also is looking at the age of marriage. According to the Virginia Department of Health, some 4,500 minors were married between 2004 and 2013. In most of those cases, the minor was a female, and often shockingly young. Four of the brides were 13, 24 brides were 14 and more than 170 brides were 15.

Ninety percent of the underage marriages were to an adult over the age of 18, and 30 to 40 percent of those adults were over 21 — and sometimes decades older.

Virginia state Sen. Jill Vogel, Fauquier Republican, initially introduced a bill similar to Ms. Atterbeary‘s, but it was amended to allow 16- and 17-year olds to marry if they become legally emancipated and have the full rights of an adult, including the right to go to a battered women’s shelter or ask the cops for assistance in the case of abuse.

In Maryland, that suggestion has fallen flat — largely because the state doesn’t have an emancipation process.

Mr. Parrott said that such a bill could solve some of the issues, and he might be inclined to support it.

“I think that’s a much better bill, what they have in Virginia, than what we’re proposing here,” he said. “I would certainly consider that. It’s a much better bill than what we have right now.”

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