Warren, national advocates outline need to end child marriage in Pa.

HARRISBURG, March 8 – Marriage before the age of 18, which is legal in Pennsylvania, can result in short- and long-term harm to a child, and would be outlawed under a bill introduced this week by state Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks.

Warren said during a statewide telephone news conference today that child marriages are often coercive and exploitative and increase the risk of domestic violence while undermining the child’s education, health and economic opportunities.

Under current Pennsylvania law, a marriage license may be issued to an applicant under the age of 16 if the court decides it is in the best interest of the applicant. A marriage license also may be issued in cases where an applicant is over the age of 16 but younger than 18 if the consent of a parent or guardian with custody of the child is personally given before the person issuing the license, or consent is certified in writing with the signature of two adult witnesses and is acknowledged before an officer authorized by law to make acknowledgements.

Warren’s bill would repeal those exceptions and set the minimum age at which a marriage license may be issued to 18. 

“This is about child protection. It is past time to change Pennsylvania’s marriage law to provide a minimum age of 18 for marriage,” Warren said. “Socially and developmentally speaking, children are not in the position to make sound decisions that involve complex legal, emotional and permanent investments involving family planning, pair-bonding and aging.

“Analysis in cases shows that the child often is not in control during a decision to marry before reaching age 18 and therefore cannot be expected to recognize the issues at stake when entering matrimony. For the child, such a deficit often leads to abuse, coercion and exploitation that lasts into adulthood.”

Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Center and Fraidy Reiss of Unchained at Last participated in the call, as well. Tahirih Justice Center is a nonprofit legal service and advocacy organization with national legal and policy expertise on forced and child marriage. Unchained at Last is a nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping women escape or resist arranged/forced marriages and rebuild their lives.

A 2011 survey by the Tahirih Justice Center found about 3,000 known or suspected cases in the previous two years alone of girls in the U.S. as young as 15 who were forced to marry under threats of death, beatings or ostracism.

Unchained at Last estimates that some 248,000 children were married in America between 2000 and 2010. Actual data from 38 states showed some 167,000 children wed in that decade. The other 12 states and Washington, D.C., could not provide the data. For them, Unchained estimated the number of children wed based on the correlation Unchained identified between population and child marriage.

Pennsylvania is a state that doesn’t keep numbers on child marriage.

“By taking just one simple step – setting the minimum legal marriage age at 18 – this bill will offer powerful protection to vulnerable children,” Smoot said. “In the Tahirih Justice Center’s experience, before individuals turn 18 and have the full legal rights of an adult, they can be easily forced or coerced to marry, or find themselves trapped in an abusive or exploitative marriage.”

"There's a reason the U.S. State Department considers marriage before 18 a human-rights abuse,” Reiss said. “The impacts of child marriage on a child’s life are devastating and long-lasting, undermining her health, education and economic opportunities and increasing her risk of experiencing violence."

Laws in 27 states do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry. Pennsylvania is one of these states. Marriage license data from 2000 to 2010, reveals that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children were married – almost all of them girls, some as young as 12 – to men 18 or older.