By Amato Sanita, a criminal defense attorney in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He practices in state and federal courts.
Virginians will soon see some changes, as antiquated policies that would have let a 13-year-old girl marry a grown man are being eradicated and replaced. In a new law, which took effect last Friday, only adults 18 years old and older (16 years old for emancipated minors) will now be allowed to marry in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Under previous Virginia law, a girl who was 13 years old and pregnant could marry anyone with a parent or legal guardian’s consent. Under the newly enacted law, the notion of pregnancies determining marriageability are rightfully taken out and the minimum age is raised to being an adult, regardless of if parents want a marriage.
This bill is aimed at curbing the number of forced marriages in Virginia, human trafficking, and statutory rape hidden in a marriage. The previous laws created what activists called a “fast-track to child marriage” for abusers which allowed them to simply marry the kids they abused. Human trafficking and slave labor, especially for children, continues to be a rising issue globally.
In Virginia alone, there were 4,500 children under the age of 18 married from 2004 to 2013, with over 200 of those marriages including a child under the age of 15 years old. It is unknown how many of these marriages were forced or involved instances of human trafficking, abuse, and parental neglect. A little over 90 percent of all these marriages involved girls and often times their new spouse was over 21 years old or even decades older.
The laws were able to be changed in a rare display of bipartisanship in Richmond, as the bill was championed and sponsored by State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) and Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond). It passed 65-29 in the House and 38-2 in the Senate before being signed by Governor Terry McAuliffe.
“Sex with a child is illegal,” McClellan stated, “but the way the marriage laws worked, if you were under 16 and pregnant, rather than punishing your assailant, you were allowed to marry them.”
Teens who are married at this young age are far more likely to drop out before graduating high school and are also far more likely to suffer from mental or physical abuse. These marriages often end in divorce with the now 20-something bride left to raise multiple children with no education or financial support system.
Similar measures are being introduced this year in state legislatures in California, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York as well, making Virginia a leader in fixing this terrible legal problem. Maryland currently allows 15 year olds to get married if pregnant or at 16 years old otherwise.
Proponents of such measures, such as the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center, see Virginia as the first stepping stone in ending forced child marriages in the United States. While it won’t put a stop to human trafficking, this is certainly a great first step with Virginia leading in change and growth.