Pennsylvania became the third state in the U.S. to ban child marriage as Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill Friday prohibiting issuing of a marriage license to any individual under the age of 18.
“Setting the minimum age to obtain a marriage license will help prevent child exploitation,” Governor Wolf said in a Friday 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.”
Currently, the only other states with an outright ban on child marriage are Delaware and New Jersey.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing child marriages. Governor Tim Walz is expected to sign the bill into law in August.
Under current Minnesota law, individuals who are 16 and 17 years old can get married with parental consent and the signature of a judge.
“In reality, a married child cannot get a divorce, cannot rent an apartment, cannot buy or rent a car, cannot get health care or check into a hospital, cannot open a bank account, does not have access to an inheritance, cannot get a credit card, cannot even stay at a battered women’s shelter,” said bill author Senator Sandra Pappas in a floor speech Wednesday. “A married child cannot help herself or her children.”
Newsweek reached out to Governor Walz’s office for further comment. This story will be updated with any response.
There is no federal law regarding child marriage, as all legislation concerning the matter is regulated by individual states.
According to advocacy group Unchained at Last, 248,000 children as young as 12 years old were married in the U.S. between the years of 2000-2010. The group also says 77 percent of minor girls who got married in the U.S. during that time were married to adult men.
“Some children were wed at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws,” the group’s website said.
When legislation was introduced in 2017 in California to ban anyone under the age of 18 from getting married, opposition to the bill came from the Northern California chapter of the ACLU. Among the defenses given by the ACLU was that marrying young allowed individuals to escape the foster care system by becoming emancipated through marriage.
California later passed a version of the legislation which made 18 the official marriage age. However, with parental consent and the signature of a judge, a minor may still get married.
While child marriage has long been associated with certain religious practices, Unchained at Last Executive Director Fraidy Reiss said in 2018 that data in that regard was insufficient.
“The data we retrieved from across the U.S. did not include identifying information about the children who were married, for the most part,” Reiss told WBUR. “So we don’t know from the data why they were married or whether they were from specific religions. We know from the women and girls who reach out to us that this is happening in every major religion, in minor religions and in secular backgrounds.”
Although in most states child marriage is still allowed, federal law states that sex between an individual under the age of 16 and another individual four years older is an offense.
In states where child marriage is legal, Reiss said in 2019, “what would otherwise be considered felony rape becomes completely legal once a marriage license is handed out. We’re creating a mockery of statutory rape laws.”