ANNAPOLIS — A bill that would prohibit individuals younger than 18 from marrying in Maryland, sponsored by state Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, was heard on Thursday in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
“This topic struck a chord in me as a mom. I thought of my kids,” Atterbeary said Wednesday in an interview with CNS.
The current child marriage law in Maryland prohibits a 16- or 17-year-old individual from marrying unless they have parental consent or a doctor’s notice of pregnancy.
A 15-year-old individual could be legally married in the state if they fulfill both of the requirements that are set for 16- and 17-year-olds.
During the hearing, Atterbeary told the committee that in 1999, former Delegate David Boschert, R-Anne Arundel, sponsored a bill to prohibit an individual younger than 15 from marrying after constituents brought to his attention the news of a marriage case in Annapolis that involved a 13-year-old girl and a 29-year-old man.
“But now we’re at the point where we can (again) raise the age limit,” Atterbeary said.
Atterbeary and her staff worked with Fraidy Reiss, founder of the nonprofit organization Unchained At Last, which helps women and girls leave or avoid an arranged or forced marriage, and Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy for the Tahirih Justice Center, a national non-profit organization that helps people flee domestic violence, to find statistics on child marriages in Maryland.
“The statistics were alarming,” Atterbeary said.
According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, over 3,000 children were married in Maryland from 2000 to 2014. In that same time span, nearly 150 children ages 15 or younger were married in the state and about 85 percent of the underage spouses were girls.
And a Maryland Vital Statistics Annual Report showed that there were 38 marriages between girls who were 17 and younger and men who were 21 or older in 2012. There were zero marriages between boys who were 17 and younger and women who were 21 or older in 2012, according to the same report.
“There were 237 cases of minors marrying someone at least 10 years older than the child during the time span of 2000 to 2014 — a lot of cases with an adult spouse who was significantly older,” Smoot said of the statistics from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Reiss said the two exceptions that can allow a child marriage to take place in Maryland ultimately hurt all children involved.
“Parental consent is problematic because there is no clue if it’s actually parental coercion,” Reiss said in an interview on Feb. 24. “Even in situations where a girl is crying at a clerk’s office, the clerk can’t do anything because it’s part of the law.”
Reiss also said that the second exception doesn’t make much sense because even if a girl is pregnant, it might not necessarily mean that they want to marry.
“Girls are in tremendous danger. Putting them in a legal contract is more likely to lead them to be physically or emotionally abused,” Reiss said.
Atterbeary began her testimony by telling members of the committee to picture their children or grandchildren being in a similar child marriage situation. Several of the pages had looks of shock on their faces as Atterbeary listed out statistics of child marriages in the state and she was quick to note their concern.
“It means you don’t accept this,” Atterbeary told the pages, “And that’s a good thing.”
Smoot said, in an interview on Tuesday, that she recognized there could be children younger than 18 who would want to marry, but she also wanted them to understand the harms and risks that could occur, even in a voluntary marriage.
“Children under 18 who marry are more likely to have mental health problems, to miss out on educational opportunities and are more likely to live in poverty,” Smoot said.
Atterbeary also said they didn’t have any clients from the Tahirih Justice Center or Unchained At Last testify because those individuals aren’t willing at the moment to speak to the public.
“They are still emotionally scarred from it,” Atterbeary said, “We tried to get some written testimony, but it didn’t work out.”
They did, however, receive letters of support from the nonprofit organization Asha For Women, based out of Rockville, and from Reservoir High School’s Global Equality Now Club, a chapter of the nonprofit organization School Girls Unite.
There was no opposition to the bill during Thursday’s hearing.
Atterbeary said that she wanted to have a companion bill in the state Senate, but that they were too late to file it.
Atterbeary said she wants to make sure that no matter whether the child marriages taking place are forced, arranged or voluntarily, children shouldn’t be put in that kind of situation.
“It’s important that we let kids be kids,” Atterbeary said.