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Child marriage: a dark shadow on our golden state

Art by Femi Henry-Chia

“He told me that he would lose his life if he got in trouble for this,” says writer and activist Dawn Tyree of the thirty-two-year old child molester she was forced to marry at age thirteen. In an essay on the Students Against Child Marriage website, Tyree goes on to say that she was left in her abuser’s care by her parents at age eleven, and over the course of two years, had been abused, raped, and impregnated. In order to hide their crimes, her parents and abuser conspired to coerce Dawn into marrying him. Marriage gave way to her second pregnancy, continued suffering of abuse, and eventually dropping out of high school. After escaping from her husband at age sixteen, Dawn experienced homelessness and substance abuse, and continues to have anxiety and PTSD from her traumatic childhood.

Dawn Tyree’s story does not come from some faraway country where little girls can be married off to their rapists -- it comes from right here, in California. Though Dawn was married in 1985, the laws that allowed this to happen to her are still in place, and we still don’t know how many children like Dawn become victims of child marriage each year.

As in Dawn Tyree’s case, child marriage can be used to cover up child abuse -- sexual abuse and statutory rape, specifically -- perpetrated by an adult. It is an especially effective tactic on the part of abuser(s) because, according to the anti-child marriage organization Unchained at Last, the federal criminal code “prohibits sex with a child age 12 to 15 but specifically exempts those who first marry the child.” Not only can marrying a minor exempt an abuser from the consequences of their actions against said minor, but marriage can keep future abuses, rapes, and pregnancies (which can result in lifelong trauma and an inability to continue pursuing education) behind closed doors.

In 2018, in an effort to put an end to child marriages in California, State Senator Jerry Hill proposed SB 273, a law that would have barred all marriages under age 18 according to the California Health Report. However, the bill’s age floor faced opposition from unlikely opponents, such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Children’s Law Center of California, who argued that marriage is a fundamental right, and that pregnant minors may not want their children born out of wedlock, or may use marriage as a means to emancipate themselves from the foster care system -- despite the likelihood for wed minors to drop out of school, be sexually abused, and become or remain victims of domestic violence.

Senate Bill 273 was only passed after being watered down immensely, and in its final form, set no floor for the minimum age to legally marry in California. Instead, it adds new requirements to the existing law about obtaining a marriage certificate for minors. However, the revised version of SB 273 still has loopholes. For example, the new law emancipates minors only after receiving a marriage or domestic partnership certificate, meaning that a minor to be married does not have the same rights as an adult until after their marriage is finalized. Without the rights of an adult prior to marriage, however, a child spouse may be unwilling to disclose any coercion or abuse that they have undergone while still in the custody of their parent(s), legal guardian(s), or spouse.

The other important piece of the revised SB 273 is a requirement that each county in California report the number of “marriage certificates or registered domestic partnerships in which one or both of the parties were minors.” This is important because before the passing of the bill, the state had no idea how many children were being married, since they were not required to report it. However, even now, counties are not required to report data if they did not receive copies of the court orders involved in marriage proceedings, resulting in a total of only fifteen of California’s fifty-seven counties reporting data for the year 2019. From this meager data, it would appear that only fourteen marriages, in which one or both parties were minors, occurred in 2019 -- when in fact some of the state’s largest counties, like Los Angeles and Sacramento, failed to report data at all. In a study conducted by the advocacy group Unchained At Last, it was estimated that, on average, 1,311 child marriages took place in California each year between 2000 and 2018 -- a drastic contrast with the annual reported total of just fourteen.

In April of 2021, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach aimed to improve upon SB 273 with her own bill, AB 1286. Assembly Bill 1286 would mandate that counties report marriage certificates given to minors four times a year, and would require counties to give an explanation if they don’t report any child marriages. It would also require the State Registrar to put the data online for the public. (The data in this article, for example, was acquired only after multiple requests to several state agencies, and took months to receive.) These requirements would make it more difficult for counties to hide data about child marriages, and would give a fuller picture of how many minors are married in the state. The bill was passed with unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. However, it never made it to the full Assembly for a vote.

What makes it so difficult to end American child marriage?

In the United States, only six states have enacted outright bans on marriage under age eighteen: Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York. In March of 2017, a Girl Scout named Cassandra Levesque -- who is now a New Hampshire state representative -- helped to introduce House Bill 499 to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which would have ended marriage before the age of eighteen in her state. However, her bill was killed by Republicans, and it wasn’t until the next year that the legislator she was working with was able to raise the floor to sixteen.

Ms. Levesque says that the military helps to protect child marriage (for young couples to get insurance and survivor benefits), but there are multiple political forces and organizations that oppose an age floor. According to The Orange County Register, “Some religious groups also oppose a minimum age on marriage, arguing, for example, that pregnant minors are better off getting married. And some child welfare organizations have argued that marriage can sometimes help troubled kids to get out of bad situations, such as poor foster homes.”

Today, Dawn Tyree is a founding member of The National Coalition to End Child Marriage, and continues to provide testimony and advocate against child marriage nationwide. Here, the California Coalition to End Child Marriage has helped eleven cities to pass resolutions in favor of an age floor of eighteen in the state, and to put pressure on Sacramento politicians to finally institute a state-wide ban. This advocacy by individual cities and counties has the potential to convince State government that child marriage is an issue that people in California are concerned about, and that they will not stand for a lack of improvement upon weak policies backed by meager data. So far, neither the city nor the county of Los Angeles has passed such a resolution.

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