By Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
UPDATE: The Georgia Senate passed the bill Wednesday. The amended legislation now returns to the state House for a final vote.
With or without parental consent, children shouldn’t be allowed to marry, and we shouldn’t need laws enacted to ensure they don’t.
That is, of course, where we find ourselves, why House Bill 228 is now advancing through the state Senate. There are, in fact, plenty of parents signing their children, mostly girls, over to older men to wed.
If you’ve somehow missed that, it may be because seemingly more pressing issues, say, the state budget and the so-called “heartbeat” bill, have captured our collective attention.
Trust me, this is just as important. This is about our future.
It’s my humble opinion that the marriage bill, which would raise the minimum marriage age from 16 with parental consent to 17 with a judicial grant of emancipation, among other provisions, doesn’t go far enough.
If a kid can’t legally drink until he’s 21, why would he be allowed to get married?
Rep. Andrew Welch, a Republican from McDonough, told me he introduced the bill in February out of concern that a 16-year-old doesn't have the mental capacity to make such a big decision. He was also aware of research that showed early marriage harms girls, as well as Georgia stats showing big age gaps between teens and their male spouses.
“That alone is indicative of a manipulated marriage, and not in the best interest of the 16-year-old but the adult male,” Welch said. “I found that troubling on all sorts of levels.”
The issue came to Welch's attention last summer when Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, one of the bill's co-sponsors, introduced him to Jeanne Smoot, the senior policy counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit with a new Atlanta office that works to end violence against women and girls.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver is one of the co-sponsors of HB 228, which would raise the age when children in Georgia can marry from 16 to 17.
As part of that, Smoot told me in response to emailed questions that Tahirih has been working to change laws to end child marriages since 2016, when it led its first successful legislative reform campaign in Virginia.
At the time, Virginia arguably had the worst marriage-age laws in the country, allowing thousands of minors to be married, including pregnant 13-year-old girls, Smoot said. The new law limits marriage to legal adults — age 18 or older, or minors who’ve been emancipated by a court.
Since then, 14 states, including Florida, Tennessee and Ohio, have raised the minimum age; Delaware and New Jersey have banned marriage entirely under age 18; and over a dozen more have bills pending to either end or limit child marriage.
What’s particularly shocking about all this, Smoot said, is in many states, including Georgia, all that’s really needed to get a marriage license for a child age 16 or older is a parent’s signature.
Here’s the trouble with that: “In most of our cases, a parent is the perpetrator of the forced marriage, the one driving the decision and relentlessly pressuring the child to marry against her will.”
If you find it hard to wrap your head around that, you’re not alone. It’s beyond troubling that a parent can so easily sign their own flesh and blood over to a predator or whoever will take the child off their hands, and with “no questions asked.”
According to the research, girls who marry are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school, four times less likely to complete college, and up to 31 percentage points more likely to face future poverty. Teens who marry are also more likely to have children young and more children overall. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics surveyed 25,000 women and found that those who married before age 18 had more mental health problems, including some psychiatric disorders, at rates nearly three times higher than women who don’t marry young.
Marrying before age 19 is also associated with a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack, diabetes, stroke or cancer.
All this also doubles down on the already-heightened vulnerability of young women ages 16 to 19 to intimate partner violence and abuse — they experience victimization rates higher than other age groups.
“Early marriage is near-guaranteed to skew the arc of a girl’s life — particularly if she’s already at-risk — into a downward spiral of insecurity, instability, dependence and vulnerability,” Smoot said. “All these risks also affect the ability of a girl or woman to get to safety and to take care of herself in the event of domestic violence or divorce.
"We've seen many cases in which the full gamut of these risks has played out in the life and struggles of a single 'child bride,' and many times in which she may escape that first early marriage only to fall into a second, abusive relationship, because that's the only dynamic she's known and because she doesn't have the education, job opportunities or other resources to make it on her own.
According to the Department of Public Health’s marriage license data, about 10,000 children under 18 were married, many to significantly older spouses — even some men two and three times the child’s age — in Georgia from 2000 to 2015. That’s a crying shame.
HB 228 would not only raise the age to 17, it also would require 17-year-olds to complete at least six hours of premarital education from a professional, including instruction on conflict management, communication skills, financial responsibilities and parenting responsibilities. They would also have to go before a judge and prove they are mature and self-sufficient enough to be granted emancipation (legal status as an adult), and the judge would have to find that the marriage is voluntary and assess other criteria to determine whether the marriage is in their best interests. Finally, the other party cannot be more than four years older than the 17-year-old.
Smoot said that every time she meets with legislators or testifies at a hearing, she carries the experiences of survivors and their heartbreaking stories with her, and it’s their appeals to Tahirih to spare other girls the pain and suffering they had to endure that have fueled and inspired Tahirih’s campaign to end child marriage.
It is what inspired Welch and Oliver, too. May they inspire the rest of us to end child marriages once and for all.