Massachusetts lawmakers and Governor Charlie Baker should back a proposed law to end child marriage in Massachusetts, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the governor that was released this week. Human Rights Watch also released a video in which middle school children in Massachusetts describe their feelings about the subject.
Between 2000 and 2016, more than 1,200 children under age 18 were married in Massachusetts, according to government data. Almost all of them were girls marrying adult men. Fifty-seven were under age 16, the state’s legal age of consent. The current law sets the minimum marriage age at 18, but allows children to marry with permission from a judge and parental consent. When those conditions are met, there is no statutory age limit.
“Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and violates their human rights,” said Nesha Abiraj, women’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Massachusetts should reform its outdated marriage law.”
Human Rights Watch has spoken to dozens of state officials and members of groups concerned with children’s welfare, including the Massachusetts Department of Health, the State Child Advocate, lawyers, academics, legislators, and domestic violence and homeless shelter operators. Many of these experts had direct knowledge of how child marriage in Massachusetts puts children at risk and can trap them in dangerous situations.
Research has shown that marriage before age 18 is deeply harmful. It puts girls – who are far more likely to be subjected to child marriage than boys – at risk of harm to their health, curtailed education, poverty, and domestic violence.
Children who are married can also face great difficulty in escaping abusive relationships and getting help, including from domestic violence and homeless shelters. Some children marry because their parents force or coerce them, and in those cases parental consent requirements amount to no protection at all.
Massachusetts lawmakers are now taking action to end child marriage. House Bill H1478, filed by Representative Kay Khan, and Senate Bill S24, filed by Senator Harriette Chandler, would prohibit marriage before the age of 18 without exception. The House bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate bill to the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. The first hearing of the Senate Bill S.24 was held on March 26. Massachusetts lawmakers should make the bills a priority and send them forward quickly for a vote, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch is working with a coalition of about 40 organizations and individuals to end child marriage under Massachusetts law. The groups include more than 30 Massachusetts-based organizations and individuals, including the Office of the Child Advocate, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and the Children’s League of Massachusetts. The coalition also includes national organizations, such as Unchained at Last and Tahirih Justice Center, and international organizations, including UNICEF USA.
Children subjected to child marriage or violence face difficulties in retaining a lawyer, filing for divorce, or even seeking shelter. Massachusetts law limits how long children can stay in homeless shelters without parental consent, and several domestic violence shelters told Human Rights Watch that they do not admit children unless they are accompanied by a parent seeking shelter.
Other states are ending child marriage. Delaware became the first US state to completely outlaw child marriage in May 2018, followed by New Jersey in June. In both states, the bills had bipartisan support. Similar bills to ban child marriage, without exceptions, have been introduced in other states.
Human Rights Watch has carried out research for more than a decade on child marriage in countries around the world. It has also campaigned to end child marriage in the US, including in New York and Florida. Many countries are taking steps to stop the practice, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end child marriage by 2030.
“States are finally stepping up to stop child marriage and protect children’s rights,” Abiraj said. “Massachusetts should join the vanguard of these reforms and pass this law for all the children at risk of child marriage.”