The Virginia General Assembly is finally moving to raise the state’s minimum age requirement for marriage to 16.
Under the state’s current law, children as young as 12 or 13 years old can be issued a marriage license, if they are brought to a courthouse, show evidence of pregnancy and have the consent of their parents. However, since young children, with or without parental consent, cannot make such a life-altering decision on their own, there were concerns the kids were entering marriage through force.
Republican State Sen. Jill Vogel believes the current laws do not protect the rights of children and hopes to put an end to loophole with state Senate Bill 415 and House Bill 703, which call for raising the minimum marriageable age and emancipation.
If the two bills are approved, the new law would allow marriage only if the 16- or 17-year-old petitions a judge, who would take in consideration their age, maturity, willingness to commit and criminal record history, before finally passing the judgment.
In many cases, minors have been found dating someone who is not just a few years, but decades, older. That should be considered statutory rape and should be charged as such.
Although, 16 years old is still young for marriage and parenting, the bill will at least safeguard younger girls — who are not old enough to drive, go to court or to a women’s shelter — from suffering in an abusive marriage. Additionally, it will remove the gender disparity in the state’s current law where young pregnant girls can be forced in a marriage while a boy of the same age doesn’t face that predicament.
Many children who have been forced into marriage go on to become victims of abuse and sexual harassment, while the perpetrators hide behind a marriage license to save themselves from prosecution. There have been cases where, without emancipation, the police are required to take a victim of domestic abuse right back to their abuser at home. The emancipation clause in the bill can give a minor the right to protect themselves under such cases.
The issue of child marriage is much more rampant in developing countries where one-third girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday. UNICEF is currently working on the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which will reach out to millions of girls.