RICHMOND — Only adults can get married in Virginia, according to a new law replacing policies that made it possible for a girl 13 or younger to marry if she had parental consent and was pregnant.
The law, which took effect Friday, sets the minimum marriage age at 18, or 16 if a child is emancipated by court order. It takes parents and pregnancy out of the equation.
The change is aimed at curbing forced marriage, human trafficking and statutory rape disguised as marriage. Activists say the previous law created a “fast-track to child marriages” for abusers who could evade investigation by child-welfare officials by simply marrying their victims.
Nearly 4,500 children under age 18 were married in Virginia from 2004 to 2013, according to data from the state’s Department of Health. That includes more than 200 children age 15 or younger.
About 90 percent of the underage spouses were girls; in many cases, the girls married men age 21 or older, and sometimes the men were decades older, data show.
The statistics prompted the Falls Church-based Tahirih Justice Center, which works to end forced marriage in the United States, to set about getting the laws changed through a rare bipartisan effort.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) and Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) sponsored identical bills that passed during this year’s legislative session, despite some opposition.
Similar bills were introduced in California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“We hope that legislators will see the efforts in Virginia as a wake-up call about how their laws can facilitate forced marriages of children,” said Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih’s senior counsel for policy and strategy.
Vogel said she learned about the issue when constituents in an affluent part of her Northern Virginia district sought her help after a man in his 50s was suspected of having sex with a high school student.
Source: Washington Post