ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A bill that would raise the minimum age for marriage in Maryland will be heard in committee on Wednesday, January 26th.
Senate Bill 29/House Bill 83 would ban marriages under the age of 17, and would remove an exception that currently allows kids as young as 15 to get married if they're pregnant or have had a child.
Casey Carter Swegman is the Director of Public Policy at Tahirih Justice Center and spoke with us about the years-long push for this bill.
"In the state of Maryland, we've been working to pass legislation to end or limit child marriage since 2016," she says. "So this is year seven."
In the last couple years, this bill faced the same obstacles that many others did. The pandemic cutting the session short in 2020 and the slew of criminal justice reform priorities in 2021, pushed this bill to the back-burner.
"We are eager to see Maryland step into more of a leadership position on this issue to take steps this year, finally, to protect children from predatory child marriages," says Swegman.
"For the most part, many Americans still believe that child marriage just isn't happening in our country, that it's something that happens overseas," says Swegman.
And while, there are fights in countries across the globe to end the practice, it's something that lawmakers in the United States have to grapple with too.
According to the Tahirih Justice Center's information sheet on the bill, "this reform responds to a serious problem with current law, which has no effective safeguards to protect children from potentially lifelong, devastating harm."
Swegman expanded on the types of harm children in this situation can face.
"Child marriage whether or not it is forced, leads to lifelong consequences related to physical health to mental health," she explains. "It curtails education, it puts young girls at risk of increased physical and emotional and sexual violence, and it is forcing children to enter into legal contracts that they often, in many states, do not have the legal ability to then exit. [They] are often quite curtailed in their ability to access the supports and services that are set up for adult survivors of violence and so they often are falling through the cracks of systems."
Child Marriages in Maryland
The most recent report for marriages by age, from the Department of Vital Statistics, gives us information from 2019.
In 2019, 64 children were married in the state of Maryland.
8 of those kids were married to another minor.
25 of those children were married to someone age 18-19.
18 kids were married to someone aged 20-24.
10 children were married to someone in the 25-29 age range.
And 3 children were married to a person age 30-34.
The Tahirih Justice Center says that between 2000 and 2018, nearly 3,500 children were married in Maryland.
"I think in the early years, it was still very surprising to legislators that we were talking to you that this was even happening," says Swegman.
The Next Steps
The effort to change the laws to restrict child marriage in Maryland, has met some resistance.
"I think with every issue, there are going to be individuals and groups that have discomfort with change, or are coming from the issue with a different perspective," she says.
While advocates with the Tahirih Justice Center promote an ideal of banning all marriages under the age of 18, the proposed law doesn't go that far.
"We think we have landed in a really solid compromise position where we do have an exemption for those minors who might be older, who are able to go in front of a judge for permission to marry through the emancipation process and can show that they are mature, they're independent, they are consenting, they're not facing force, or fraud or coercion, that the person they want to marry has no criminal background, especially with crimes against children."
- Casey Swegman
The Senate's Judicial Proceeding's Committee will hear the bill on Wednesday, during a 1pm Zoom hearing.
And while it won't end child marriages entirely, Swegman says it is "a strong step in the right direction."
If you or someone you know is in danger of being forced into a child marriage, you can visit the Tahirih Justice Center's website for help and resources: https://preventforcedmarriage.org/get-help/