Groups against child marriage gather at State House to support bill to formally ban practice

Activists in wedding gowns standing in front of the Statehouse
Advocates against child marriage gathered at the State House Wednesday, Sept. 23, to support legislation that would formally end the practice. Photo by Aaron Velasco.

By Rin Velasco
Boston University News Service

BOSTON – Supporters of a bill that would formally ban child marriage in Massachusetts were on Beacon Hill Wednesday, spotlighting legislation that would mandate a minimum marriage age of 18 throughout the Commonwealth. 

Gathered outside the State House and around Boston Common, many marched and stood in wedding gowns with black tape over their mouths. In one case, a protester wore chains around their hands to symbolize the bondage and silence young women go through when married as children. 

Fraidy Reiss, founder of the organization Unchained at Last and a survivor of a forced marriage, said the protest was a “chain-in” to stand in solidarity with the sufferers and survivors of involuntary and child marriages and oppose the continued legality of marriages with women under the age of 18.  

“There is legislation pending in Massachusetts to end child marriage, a human rights abuse and an archaic, sexist, dangerous practice that remains legal here in the Commonwealth,” Reiss said. “You can imagine this horrific situation that we’ve created for children, and it’s so easy to fix.” 

According to Reiss, child marriage is possible in the state through an obscure statute allowing an adult to marry a minor, so long as a parent consents and a judge approves, even without the child’s consent. Only six states have strictly outlawed marriages with minors.  

“I understand, in a very personal way, what a forced marriage means,” Reiss said. “It means a lifetime of rape, abuse, and domestic servitude. It means a loss of sexual and reproductive rights. It means a loss of dignity and a loss of hope.”

Rates of domestic violence are three times higher in marriages with women younger than 18 than in marriages with two consenting adults, Reiss said, explaining that resources are so few for these minors that they often resort to life-threatening behaviors.

State legislation aimed at abolishing marriage to minors is slowly making its way through congress, where a bill is currently sitting before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

State Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, who filed the bill, said she has been working for years with dozens of lawmakers to get it passed, and just wants to see it signed into law for its intended purpose, help children who are suffering. 

“It’s really about protecting girls—young women and girls. They lose so much if they get married under the age of 18,” Khan said. “They lose their potential for economic stability and a future because they can’t finish school.” 

Khan attended the chain-in protest in a white gown and marched with the crowd of protesters, taking part in group chants and standing with them on Beacon Hill. 

Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, said he is optimistic that the bill will pass in November due to the large amount of support he, Khan and other legislators have drummed up in congress. 

“We try to lead and serve as an example for the rest of the country to follow,” Garballey said. 

“My hope is that that will be what happens if we can get this legislation passed.” 

Executive Director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts Tammy Mello said, while it will not annul the forced and child marriages that have already been licensed, the bill marks a huge step toward progress, as it will prevent any more marriages of that nature in Massachusetts. 

“People don’t know that children can get married in Massachusetts,” Mello said. “As we talk to the general public and even legislators, they were not aware that this current loophole exists.” 

Mello, who also attended the chain-in protest wearing a wedding gown, said she hopes Wednesday’s event and activism against forced marriages will draw further attention to the issue, making people across the state and country more aware.

Editor’s note, 9/28/21: A previous version of this article listed Fraidy Reiss as the victim of a child marriage. Reiss was the victim of a forced marriage, which she experienced at the age of 19. This error originated from an editor, and not the article’s reporter. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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