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Michigan legislature tackles child marriage

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A pair of bills introduced in the state Senate on Thursday would prohibit marriage of children under sixteen. Current Michigan law does not set an absolute minimum age for marriage. The new bills, SB1255 and SB1256, would set that age at 16. And they would require the consent of both parents for 16 and 17 year olds, rather than one parent alone.

The bills are sponsored by state Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Margaret O'Brien, R-Portage. Jones says that a report by WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids revealed Michigan's laws have a loophole allowing children under 16 to be married with the consent of their parents and a judge. "We don't even allow consensual sex in Michigan until 16, so how could we possibly sign a 14-year-old child into marriage? It's outrageous, and I want it to come to an end," says Jones.

For 16- and 17-year-olds, consent of both parents would be required for marriage, replacing the previous law that required consent of only one parent. 

Some say the legislation doesn't go nearly far enough. Fraidy Reiss is with the national advocacy group Unchained at Last.  According to data compiled by Unchained at Last, 4870 children were married in Michigan between 2000 and 2014. She says more than 99 percent of those children were 16 or 17. 

"I'm going to call a bill like that a waste of time. If you're carving out an exception for the 16 and 17 year olds, then you've carved out an exception for everyone you're trying to protect and then this bill is just meaningless," says Reiss.

Child marriage in Michigan is practiced for many reasons, according to Reiss, including religious or cultural reasons and to legitimize a pregnancy. Reiss says, "There are still many parents who think that if there's a pregnancy, the only possible solution is a marriage, even though studies show that a pregnant teenage girl who marries has worse long term outcomes, and if she marries is more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability."

This can happen even in the case of a rape, Reiss says, resulting in a girl marrying her own rapist.

Reiss says that when a child is forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents. "At first glance one might think if there's a judge involved, that would protect a child from a forced marriage, but when a child is forced to marry, the child is also forced to lie to the judge about it. We see this all the time at Unchained at Last," says Reiss. 

Reiss says her group advocates for a ban on all marriage for people under 18, but they've experienced a lot of pushback and difficulty in getting states to adopt a full child marriage ban. In fact, this was a reason Jones cited for establishing a minimum age of 16 in these new bills.

"I believe the best thing would be for everybody to wait at least until they're 18. However, I do think there will be some pushback from some people, and I was looking for something that we could start with. If we could at least start with getting the 14 and 15-year-olds out of it, I think we can later look at making it even older," says Jones.

The pushback has prevented full child marriage bans from going into effect in many states, Reiss says. However, in 2018, Delaware and New Jersey became the first U.S. states to completely ban marriage for children under 18.

Jones says he hopes that the bills will get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.