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Child, not bride: Minnesota should outlaw marriage under age 18

Nearly 250,000 children in the United States were married between the years 2000 and 2010. That number includes an estimated 2,500 children in Minnesota.

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

In 2017 I read an article about child marriage, a situation I assumed occurred only in countries like Thailand or Nigeria. I was surprised and horrified to read that nearly 250,000 children in the United States were married between the years 2000 and 2010. That number includes an estimated 2,500 children in Minnesota. These marriages cut across all socio-economic and demographic groups.

I didn’t believe this — but it’s true.

Most of those children, with “child” legally defined as a person under age 18, were girls, and most of those girls were married to older men. Under Minnesota law, it is illegal to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old child if the perpetrator is more than 4 years older than the child and in a position of authority. Without the cover of marriage, most of the resulting sexual relationships in these child marriages would constitute the crime of statutory rape. However, that very same conduct is legal if the victim and the perpetrator are married.

Child marriages happen for many reasons: economic, social, religious, or cultural pressures by families; as a “solution” to unplanned pregnancies; and to legalize a relationship that otherwise might result in an investigation by child protection services or to avoid a criminal indictment, essentially forcing a victim to marry her rapist.

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In Minnesota, a child’s parent or legal guardian must petition the courts for a minor to be married. Judges are given wide discretion and usually grant the marriage licenses, generally being very reluctant to oppose the parent who brings a child in to be married.

This is a travesty.

Girls who marry as children, compared to those who marry at 18 or older, are:

  • 3 times more likely to be beaten by their spouses
  • 31% more likely to live in poverty
  • 50% more likely to drop out of high school
  • 23% more likely to have a heart attack, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and psychiatric disorders
  • 50% more likely to get divorced.

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 A married child under age 18 cannot:

  • Get a divorce
  • Rent an apartment
  • Buy or rent a car
  • Get health care or check into a hospital
  • Open a bank account
  • Have access to an inheritance
  • Get a credit card
  • Stay at a battered women’s shelter

A married child cannot help herself or her children.

In 2019, Minnesota Sen. Sandy Pappas and Rep. Kaoly Her led legislation to end all child marriage in Minnesota. Her, whose father refused an offer to have her marry while she was still a young teen, said, “We cannot let a practice that reduces a girl’s chance of success, happiness, security, and safety continue. We are the adults who know better, so we should protect our children.”

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
The bill passed unanimously in the Minnesota House of Representatives – in about 90 seconds, with no questions, hesitations, or reservations. Minnesota’s House members loudly affirmed that girls are children, not brides.

However, the bill stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Warren Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to give it a hearing, even saying to a group of law students, “If a Hmong father wants to marry off his teen-age daughter to an older man for a good dowry, who am I to stand in his way?”

In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey ended all child marriage. Ten more states are likely to pass similar bills in 2020.

In Europe, marriage under age 18 is prohibited in Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Among other countries with a similar restriction: Tanzania, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Ethiopia. The UN Sustainable Development Goal is to end child marriage in all countries by 2030.

On Thursday, Feb. 13 —  at 2:30 p.m., in the Press Room, B971 at the Minnesota State Capitol — Pappas will hold a press conference about ending child marriage in Minnesota. Joining her at the microphone will be a child marriage survivor; Rep. Her; Rose Roach, executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association; Claire Willett, Eden Prairie High School student and Ferencz youth fellow in human rights and law at World Without Genocide; and Fraidy Reis, executive director of Unchained at Last, a national organization advocating against child marriage. The public is invited to attend.

Support the bill in Minnesota for child, not bride: SF 1393.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

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