Rhode Island just became the latest US state to prohibit child marriage — the marriage of a child under the age of 18.
Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee (D) signed a bill banning child marriage in the state on Monday according to the Hill. Before McKee passed the legislation, children as young as 16 could obtain marriage licenses with permission from a parent or guardian. Children younger than 16 could also get married if they held a family court hearing. Despite having the right to marry, children who entered these marriages could not legally file for divorce.
Women who shared their stories with Rhode Island lawmakers inspired the bill, according to the Hill. Sara Tasneem of California explained that when she was 13, her father introduced her to her soon-to-be 28-year-old husband one morning and she married him by that night.
“I was taken out of the country, raped daily, and impregnated almost immediately," Tasneem said.
Between 2000 and 2018, 171 Rhode Island children entered child marriages and 88% of them were girls, with many of them forced into the agreement by their parents, according to the organization Unchained At Last.
McKee said the bill is a step to “protect children and prevent exploitation.”
"If you think child marriage is not an issue in Rhode Island, you are sadly mistaken, State Rep. Julie Casimiro (D), who supported the bill, told local NBC affiliate WJAR. Child marriages can be used to sex traffick adolescent girls or hide unwanted pregnancies, she explained.
“Child marriages destroy girls’ health, education, and economic opportunities and increase their risk of violence,” Casimiro told the Associated Press.
Girls who marry as children 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.
In 2015, 193 countries agreed to end the practice worldwide by 2030 as part of the United Nations' Global Goals, but around 1 in 5 girls globally still married before the age of 18 before the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is putting an additional 10 million girls at risk of child marriage before the end of the decade due to school closures, increased economic stress, service disruptions, and parental deaths.
Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota have also passed laws to ban child marriage and New York State is waiting for a child marriage bill to get signed into law. Anti-child marriage advocates are pushing for the remaining 45 US states to follow suit.