The governor of Rhode Island has signed into law a bill banning child marriages, making the Ocean State the fifth state to enact such legislation.
Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee, a Democrat, signed into law House Bill 5387 Monday, after the legislation unanimously passed the state’s House of Representatives. The law repeals a section of Rhode Island state law outlining the “consent and procedure required for license to minors and persons under guardianship.”
The section of the law relating to “marriage licenses” is amended to read: “A marriage license shall only be granted to a person of full age, attaining the age of eighteen (18) years shall be deemed full legal age.” The law previously allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to marry if “the consent in writing of the parent or guardian” is provided.
According to the advocacy organization Unchained at Last, which describes itself as a “growing national movement to end child marriage in the U.S.,” Rhode Island is the fifth state to enact legislation banning minors from obtaining marriage licenses. The others are Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. As the group noted, “Child marriage, or marriage before 18, was legal in all 50 U.S. states as of 2018.”
While the aforementioned states are the only states that have banned marriage for those younger than 18, several other states have passed laws limiting child marriage to some degree. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee have passed laws making the minimum marriage age 17, while Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Utah and Virginia have passed laws setting the minimum marriage age at 16 years of age.
Unchained at Last reports that “strong bills” raising the minimum marriage age to 18 are under consideration in the states of Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and South Carolina. Most of the remaining states have minimum marriage ages of 16 or 17. California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming do not have a minimum marriage age, while Alaska and North Carolina allow individuals aged 14 and older to get married.
A study from Unchained at Last, published in April, found that “nearly 300,000 minors, under age 18, were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Children who have gotten married in the U.S. range from the age of 10 to 17, with the overwhelming majority consisting of girls aged 16 and 17 years who marry men an average of four years their senior. The number of minor girls wed exceeds the number of minor boys wed by a ratio of approximately six to one.
Describing child marriage as “dangerous,” the advocacy group contends that child marriage “can easily be forced marriage, since minors have limited legal rights with which to escape an unwanted marriage (typically they are not even allowed to file for divorce),” and constitutes “a human rights abuse that produces devastating, lifelong repercussions for American girls, destroying their health, education, and economic opportunities and quality of life.”
Additionally, Unchained at Last maintains that child marriage laws undermine statutory rape laws by “often covering up what would otherwise be considered a sex crime.” In addition to calling on states to ban child marriage, the advocacy organization is urging the federal government to take action as well.
“The federal government must set a minimum age of at least 18 to petition for a spousal or fiance(e) visa or to be the beneficiary of such a visa, and must eliminate the marital exception to statutory rape. Legislation to this effect harms no one except child rapists, costs nothing and protects children from a human rights abuse,” the report concluded.
With the exception of a surge in 2011, the number of child marriages in the U.S. has declined consistently since 2000, dropping from 76,396 at the turn of the century to 2,493 today. The amount of child marriages per-capita is highest in Nevada, with a child marriage rate of 0.67%. Meanwhile, New Hampshire has the lowest per-capita child marriage rate, which amounts to 0.02%.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org