With New York Times taglines like “young teenagers, New York State is calling the wedding off,” New Yorkers are happy to announce law changes that protect children from young teen marriage. Previously allowing marriages of children as young as 14 with court and parent approval, now marriages of children between the ages of 14 and 16 are “abolished” in the state of New York. State Assembly member Amy Paulin sponsored the bill, and gladly announced the measure will “dramatically change the lives of girls in New York.” Quoting the President of the Organization for Women of New York, the New York Times hailed the measures as proving “New York is poised to lead the nation in recognizing child marriage as a human rights violation.” Governor Cuomo and legislatures championed the bill as ending what they termed as “a form a child abuse.” It’s hard not to agree with Cuomo, quoted in a Daily News article, that “[i]t’s shocking current law allows for children as young as 14 to be married off.”
Without protection against “coercive” child marriages, there is often a gap between the age a child can marry and divorce. Like a child who can marry at 14, but not be legally granted a divorce or seek asylum in an abuse shelter until they are 18. In Texas, a child can marry with just parent approval at 16, and younger with court approval, according to Texas Family Code § 2.103. The Houston Chronical reports the most recently available data shows that just in the five years between 2009 and 2013, 718 ages 15-17 years old were married, and that 120 of those were married in Harris County. If you go back as far as 2004, and look at the nation as a whole, the Tahirih Justice Center shares that 4,500 children were married.
When will Texas follow New York, and protect children by passing similar legislation? Just last month, Texas House Bill 3932 was unanimously voted to pass to the next stage by the Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee, and twin Senate Bill 1705 passed out of the Senate. Moved by a Houston Chronicle article written by Francisca Ortega about her mother, “A Child Bride in Texas,” lawmakers have championed the bills as a measure to end the heart-wrenching practice of coerced teen marriage that Senator Van Taylor says will “continue to haunt [his] memory.” Citing CDC data, Francisca Ortega shares that even in marriages “willingly joined” by children rarely last, and that it is too late to make up ground lost once educational opportunities are set aside, and the associated challenges of “increase[d] risk of mental health issues, domestic violence, abuse and poverty” occur.
Houston is at the center of a large patch of counties cited in the Houston Chronical article “The Texas Counties with the most married children,” that estimates 15.4 million minor girls are married each year in the world. You can support Unchained At Last in moving for legislative changes by emailing legislatures right on their site if you currently live in California, Connecticut, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or Texas, where legislation to end child marriage is under consideration.
My own mother at 17 decided to marry my biological father, pictured above. He was older, she barely knew him, going from an honors program in high school to married with three kids before she turned 21. College scholarships left behind, it took years to finally leave an abusive relationship with her kids in tow, and two decades more to finally go back to finish her college degree. Even years older than Francisca Ortega’s mother in “A Child Bride in Texas,” it was a tough road back from an early marriage, one our family was affected by for years. The legislation proposed in Texas isn’t perfect, it still allows marriage between 16-17 years old with parent and court approval, but it is far better than the system currently in place. Our courts and advocates can be involved to ensure at least coerced young marriages are curtailed, and I urge involvement and letters to legislators to see the measure in Texas, and those similarly situated in other States, to quickly pass.