WASHINGTON — Under Virginia’s current laws, children as young as 12 or 13 can be married off. But legislation moving through the Virginia General Assembly would put an end to that.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing to protect children by raising the legal age of marriage to 16. There is no minimum age for marriage in the commonwealth.
“A child who’s 13 and pregnant — it’s rarely the case that the 13-year-old is marrying a 17-year-old,” says Virginia Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, whose bill sets 16 as the minimum age for marriage.”It’s more often the case that it is a child marrying somebody decades older than they are.”
Vogel says that Senate Bill 415, which passed in the Senate last month, has passed in a House sub-committee and in a full-committee and will be on the House floor this week, possibly as early as Monday, for a vote.
“We’re very, very close to getting a bill to the governor,” Vogel says.
There is a companion bill in the House, House Bill 703, sponsored by Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
In Virginia, a marriage license can be issued if a 12- or 13-year-old is brought to the courthouse, shows evidence of a pregnancy and has the consent of a parent.
“Someone, instead, should be asking the question, ‘Well if this 13-year-old is pregnant, isn’t that evidence of statutory rape?’ Is that not a crime?” Vogel says. Instead of saying, “It’s OK, let’s give this person a marriage license,” Vogel says people should be looking out for the child’s best interest.
She also notes that teens who are being abused in a marriage are not old enough to go to court for a protection order and are too young to go to a women’s shelter. They’re not even old enough to drive.
“They are truly victims in every way,” she says.
Vogel says she was surprised at what she found when researching marriage laws in other states.
“In terms of what parameters there are to protect children, it really shocks the conscience, some of the situations children have found themselves in, where there is forced marriage or they are the victims of sex abuse,” she says. “The perpetrators use marriage as a veil to protect themselves from prosecution.”
Also, Vogel says that it’s unfair that pregnant girls in Virginia can be forced to marry ,while boys aren’t subjected to the same standard — they cannot be forced to marry. Some states have already done away with this pregnancy consideration for marriage.
Under Vogel’s bill, youths between 16 and 18 of age would have to petition the court for a marriage license. A judge would determine whether the teens have entering into the marriage agreement on their own accord, that they are not being coerced or are in a dangerous situation, and that they are mature enough to decide to marry.
The petition can be granted if a judge determines that safety criteria has been met.
The judge also could grant emancipation as part of the petition, which means that the teens would have rights under the law ,since they are younger than 18. This gives youths the right to protect themselves.
Without emancipation, police officers who pick up a teen victim of domestic abuse would be required to take the youth back home — possibly returning them to the abuser.