They can’t legally vote, drink alcohol or smoke a cigarette, but thousands of underage Virginians, most of them girls, have been pressured into marriage over the last decade.
Now there’s a move afoot in the General Assembly to try to head off the disturbing trend by raising the age of consent for marriage to at least 18 in most cases.
The issue popped onto state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel’s radar after she learned of a story in her district of a 15-year-old girl dating a 50-year-old man. As police began to investigate, the man first took the girl out of state; then, as the investigation intensified, he married her — effectively shutting down the probe.
“Virginia’s marriage law is really out of whack,” said Ms. Vogel, Fauquier Republican.
Young marriages turn out to be startlingly common. 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 years old, 24 brides were 14, and more than 170 others were 15.
Ninety percent of the underage marriages were to an adult spouse over the age of 18, and 30 percent to 40 percent of those adults were over 21 — sometimes decades older.
Ms. Vogel’s bill, which passed the state Senate, would increase the marriage age to 18 but allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be married if they are emancipated.
In the current system, children 15 and younger can get married if they have parental consent and are pregnant.
Ms. Vogel said that when young children get married, they are likely being coerced, citing “high, high” rates of violence, sexual assault and domestic abuse.
During the floor debate, Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, said he could not support the bill because it stripped away parental rights.
Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, dismissed those objections, saying that parents oftentimes were coercing their children.
“I think we need to have a system in place that doesn’t take either parental consent or the fact of pregnancy at face value, but looks to see if parental consent hides coercion or that the pregnancy is a fact that the girl was forced to have sex in the first place,” Ms. Smoot said.
The House of Delegates is advancing its version of the legislation, where it too has met with questions. Delegate Richard Morris, Suffolk Republican, said the legislation would solve a problem that happens in “England, Africa and Asia” but not in the United States.
Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls leave arranged or forced marriages, said that is a common misconception.
“It’s not just immigrant communities. It’s also so-called American communities,” Ms. Reiss said. “But also, the immigrant communities come from 56 countries of origin and many different continents, so it’s not just one ethnic community.”
There’s no single profile for the girls who are married off — they have been married for economic, religious or traditional reasons, and have been Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Mormon and Christian.
“People saying ‘It’s just this one group’ or ‘This is just immigrants’ or ‘It’s just one kind of people’ — that’s a way to abdicate responsibility,” Ms. Reiss said. “We can’t blame everything on one community, can’t say it’s just them. This is a widespread issue. This is a women and girls issue, not just a one-community issue.”
In neighboring Maryland, Delegate Vanessa E. Atterbeary, Prince George’s Democrat, has proposed raising the legal age of marriage to 18.
In Maryland, more than 3,000 children, overwhelmingly girls, have been married since 2000. The marriage-age floor in the state is 15 — and roughly 150 of the children were 15. State records showed six children younger than 15 were married, despite the age floor.
Ms. Atterbeary, like Ms. Vogel in Virginia, said raising the marriage age could help combat cases of statutory rape.
Other states also are looking into child marriages in their jurisdictions. In Michigan, between 2000 and 2014, there were 4,872 child marriages, with the girls as young as 12.
“People forget that these are kids,” Ms. Atterbeary said. “These are teenagers.”