By Prithvi G. Tikhe
Boston University Statehouse Program
This story was originally published in the Telegram.
BOSTON — Child marriages may be more widespread in Worcester County than many people realize.
With no minimum age requirement for marriage in Massachusetts, all a child needs is a half-page petition, parental and judicial approval.
State Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, introduced a bill at the start of the 2017-2018 legislative session to end all child marriage in Massachusetts, with no exceptions. Yet the bill was placed under review last March, indefinitely postponing action. Ms. Chandler isn’t taking no for an answer.
“This legislation was intended to improve the commonwealth’s ability to address child early and forced marriage and protect vulnerable youth,” said Ms. Chandler.
From 2000 to 2016, approximately 1,200 children as young as 14 were married in Massachusetts, according to the latest records from the Department of Public Health. This is a yearly average of 72 minors. During that time, the majority, 89 percent, were girls married to adult men.
In Worcester County, 205 children were married in the same time period, which is 17 percent of all minor marriages in Massachusetts. About 94 percent of the underage spouses from 2005-2016 were females.
An 1854 case law set the precedent to allow children to marry in Massachusetts as young as 12 years old if a girl, and 14 if a boy.
Ms. Chandler said current law permits child marriage with the consent of a parent and approval from a judge in Probate and Family Court. Judges do not have guidelines for presiding over these unique cases nor do they interview the minor privately to ensure coercion is not in play.
By eliminating marriage for those under the age of 18, this legislation would eliminate the threat of a minor being forced or coerced into a marriage.
She added that forced marriage victims experience significantly high rates of sexual abuse, economic threats and isolation. Additionally, married minors do not have the legal rights of adults.
American women who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to face psychiatric disorders like clinical depression, according to a 2011 nationwide study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A 2016 review by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that women and girls who were threatened with forced marriage reported higher instances of intimate partner violence.
Without specifying a minimum age for marriage in a law, Massachusetts is in line with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, based on research by Human Rights Watch.
Child marriage is typically associated with countries that don’t have a strong history of women’s and human rights.
State Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, House chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said she was “shocked” when she discovered child marriage exists in the United States.
“A minor cannot purchase cigarettes, join the military, vote, or serve on a jury, but in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and 47 other states, they can marry,” said Ms. Khan.
Unlike in New Jersey, where a similar bill faced opposition from an anti-abortion group, New Jersey Right to Life, there was no pushback from any organization and legislators had no issues with the bill in Massachusetts.
Ms. Khan stressed that one of the main reasons the legislation has not moved forward is because legislators have not been able to connect with any victims of child marriage from Massachusetts who are willing to speak about their experience.
However, a forced marriage survivor from New Jersey shared her story.
Fraidy Reiss grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and at 19 was forced into marrying an older man who abused her. She attended college after 12 years of marriage and filed for divorce upon graduation. To this day, her family and community considers her dead.
Ms. Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a New Jersey-based group that seeks to end child marriage in the United States, was surprised that the legislation didn’t pass the first time it was introduced, especially in a state such as Massachusetts, which has a reputation as being very strong on women’s and girls’ issues.
She said part of the problem is legislators are trying to solve a problem that most people still don’t know exists.
The legislators will reintroduce the bill in the next session and if it is passed, Massachusetts will be the third state in the northeastern United States, after Delaware and New Jersey, to ban child marriage.
The bill will eliminate gaping loopholes in a law that allows child marriage and are subjecting children, mostly girls, in Massachusetts to a human rights abuse.
“So it’s easy, it’s obvious, it’s common sense,” said Ms. Reiss. “It hurts no one except pedophiles and it helps everyone.”