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Girls & Women

Pennsylvania Is the Third US State to Officially Ban Child Marriage


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Child marriage exists across cultures and stops young girls from reaching their full potential all around the world. Stricter laws are needed to protect young girls from going down a path to extreme poverty. You can join us and take action on this issue here

Global Citizens sent more than 8,000 tweets to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf urging him to end child marriage in his state — and he listened. 

Pennsylvania just became the third state in the United States to outlaw child marriage, and the state’s legislature is the first to unanimously vote to ban marriage for children under the age of 18. 

Wolf signed the House Bill 360 to end the harmful practice on May 8, according to CBS News.

Anti-child marriage advocates hope Pennsylvania’s decision will put pressure on other states and the world to pass similar laws.

"We are happy to see Pennsylvania finally moving to end child marriage," Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director at the organization Unchained At Last, told Global Citizen. "[It is a] human rights abuse that has been around for much too long, and that still remains legal in much of the United States."

Unchained has been working to pass House Bill 360 for three and a half years, Reiss said.

"Slowly but surely, states are starting to recognize that it's time for this human rights abuse to end," she added.

When young girls enter child marriages, all aspects of their lives are affected, from their health to their education. Child brides who stop attending school are more likely to experience early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications. Girls who enter child marriages also have a harder time escaping poverty.

Child marriage is not a question of maturity, according to Reiss. Before the age of 18, children in the US do not have the legal capacity to protect themselves, leave a marriage, or flee abuse. In Pennsylvania, for example, police can take an underage child into custody for leaving home without consent. People under the age of 18 also often cannot enter domestic violence shelters, receive an attorney, or file for divorce.

While 18 is the legal age in most states to obtain a marriage license, several loopholes allow children to get married despite being younger.

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Before Wolf signed the bill into law, people younger than 16 in Pennsylvania could apply for a marriage license with court approval, and people between 16 and 18 could apply with parental consent. 

"Often, unfortunately, parental consent is actually coercion," Reiss explained. "When a child is forced to marry, the perpetrator is almost always the parents."

"Asking parents to sign a form before they marry ... does nothing to protect those kids from being forced into a marriage," she added.

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Like many states, Pennsylvania law did not specify a minimum age for obtaining a marriage license before the ban. 

What’s more, nearly every state legally allows underage children to get married with parental consent if the child is pregnant, or with a judge’s permission. In places where the practice is legal, even if judges don't agree with it, they want to be sensitive to cultural differences and do not want to pass judgment on families allowing their children to enter child marriages, Reiss said.

"Setting the minimum age to obtain a marriage license will help prevent child exploitation," Wolf said in a press release. "Marriage is a sacred and serious commitment that should be undertaken with love by two adults, not by children being exploited by unscrupulous adults."

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Pennsylvania has very little data on the actual number of children married annually because it doesn’t track marriage licenses like other states, according to Reiss. But since 2014, it is estimated that more than 2,300 children between 15 to 17 obtained marriage licenses in Pennsylvania.

Currently 47 states in the country allow people under 18 to obtain marriage licenses, but government data on the number of child marriages in the US is not available. New Jersey and Delaware are the only other states that have banned child marriage. Minnesota’s state senate also unanimously approved a bill to end the practice on May 6 and is waiting for its governor to sign it into law. 

"We're talking about simple common-sense legislation that harms no one, costs nothing, and ends a human rights abuse that destroys girls' lives," Reiss said. "It's extraordinary that other states have not already done this."

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Pennsylvania’s legislation is putting pressure on neighboring states to end child marriage too. If they don’t, they run the risk of becoming a child marriage destination, according to Reiss.

The US’s lack of marriage laws also has global repercussions. In 2015, 193 countries agreed to end the practice worldwide by 2030 as part of the United Nations' Global Goals. Around 1 in 5 girls globally marries before turning 18. In less developed countries, 40% of girls get married before turning 18, and 12% of girls are married before even turning 15.

When US states continue to allow child marriage, it sends a message to the international community, Reiss explained.

"A lot of other countries that have promised to do this are a little skeptical. 'Why isn't the United States doing this? Why is this still legal in the United States?'" she said. "The fact that the United States is finally moving in this direction is important not only for children in the United States, but for children around the world who were promised by 2030 this human rights abuse will be gone."