Parental consent can be parental coercion, teen marriage ban sponsor says

Editor’s note: at 9 AM today, House Judiciary Committee continued taking testimony on H631, prohibiting marriage of 16 and 17 year olds. Current law allows teens to marry if they have parental consent. The author is the lead sponsor. Other supporters of H631 call teen marriage child abuse condemned by the United Nations, VDC reported Monday.

by Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington)

This week, the Vermont House considers H.631, a bill that would ban  child marriage.  

Children need to grow up safe and strong, educated and ready for the  future. They deserve to be free from marriage before they have grown  up. Yet, there are loopholes in Vermont law that allow marriage before a  child is eighteen.  

Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington)

In Vermont, 289 children were married between 2000 and 2021. Eighty  percent of those children were girls who wed adult men. Defining  eighteen as the marriage age, without loopholes, will end child  marriage. 

Child marriage is easily forced. Today in Vermont, a minor may marry  with parental consent, but that parental consent can be parental  coercion. Only one parent is needed to give permission to enter a 16- or  17- year-old into marriage; and the parent does so merely by signing a  form; input from the child is not required. If the child runs away from  home to avoid marriage, the child is considered a runaway and ‘a child  in need of supervision’ under Vermont law. Police may take the child  into custody and release the child into their parents’ custody. Domestic  violence shelter staffers could be criminally prosecuted for sheltering or  aiding the runaway child. At a designated shelter for runaway youth, the  child is limited to a 21-day stay unless an officer seeks an emergency  care order. Designated shelters for youth are not confidential and the  purpose of the shelter is mediation and reunification, which most often  lands the child back home. 

Once married, the child is emancipated, but the rights of emancipated  youth are still subject to age limits under our state and federal  constitutions and under state and federal law. Further, the rights of the  emancipated minor come too late for protection from having had to  endure the trauma of a forced marriage. 

Child marriage, even at age 16 or 17, is a ‘human rights abuse’  according to the U.S. Department of State because it destroys critical  aspects of children’s lives, including their risk of experiencing increasing  domestic violence, risk to their health, and risk to their educational and  economic opportunities. Child marriage is a known driver of domestic  violence. A child’s economic dependence contributes to the risk of  domestic violence and makes it more difficult to leave the violent home.  

Globally, child marriage is associated with higher rates of sexually  transmitted infections and of early and unwanted pregnancies. Child  brides are often unable to negotiate safe sex and access to medical  care. Married teens in the U.S. are 40 percent more likely to give birth a  second time within 24 months. When child marriage is forced marriage,  typically there is a loss of reproductive freedom; children can be forced  to have unprotected sex and to bear and give birth to children without  their consent.  

A teen mother who wishes to co-parent can do so by signing a voluntary  acknowledgement of parentage with the father under Vermont law,  conferring to the father all parental rights and duties. Teen mothers who  do not marry are less likely to suffer economic instability and deprivation  than do teen mothers who marry and then divorce.  

To delay marriage is not to deny it. Marriage is a serious life decision.  Defined by Merriam-Webster as “the state of being united as spouses in  a consensual and contractual relationship, recognized by law,” forced  child marriage makes a mockery of the very definition of the term. It is in 

our hands to give our children the opportunity to grow up before  entering such a serious union. 

Let’s end this human rights abuse. 

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