Marriage Age 18, No Exceptions

We’ve been asked why Zonta USA Caucus is standing behind Age 18, No Exceptions.   Fraidy Reiss, Unchained at Last articulates the position so well.   Therese Hartwell asked Fraidy to help articulate this position, here is her answer;

Good question. Here are the talking points we use to explain why allowing emancipated minors to marry is dangerous — and why Texas’ law is bad public policy.
  • Not every state has a formal procedure by which a minor can seek emancipation nor a statute that lays out the rights of an emancipated minor. In states without such a procedure and statute, allowing emancipated minors to marry is illogical and irresponsible.

Even in states that do have a formal procedure by which a minor can seek emancipation, allowing emancipated minors to marry is dangerous public policy.

  • Emancipation is intended to help minors who cannot be reunited with their family by giving them some limited rights of adulthood so they can navigate the world independently until they turn 18 and attain full rights of adulthood. However, emancipated minors typically are not allowed to engage in activities that are unsafe or inappropriate for their age and are not necessary for their independence, such as voting and buying alcohol.

Given the many serious harms of marriage before 18 and given that marriage is not necessary for a minor to navigate the world on their own, emancipated minors also should not be allowed to marry.

  • An emancipation loophole to the marriage age opens up the terrible possibility that minors will be forced to emancipate so that they can be forced to marry. Advocates have told Unchained they already see something similar happening in the United Kingdom, with parents setting up children with a fake job at the family business and a bank account the children cannot actually access, so the courts believe the children have an income and assets.
  • Emancipated minors have only some rights of adulthood and still can become trapped in an unwanted marriage. For example, domestic violence shelters typically do not accept anyone under age 18, usually because of funding guidelines or concerns about liability. In Unchained’s experience, domestic violence shelters are reluctant to accept even emancipated minors.

Further, emancipated minors often have a hard time accessing even the rights they do have. Imagine, for example, how a landlord would feel about renting an apartment to a 17-year-old, even one who is emancipated.

To illustrate how emancipated teens often have a difficult time accessing their rights, take New Jersey Asm. Raj Mukherji. He was emancipated when he was a teenager and a “wunderkind” entrepreneur. He told Unchained even though he was legally allowed to enter contracts (and even though he was clearly brilliant and mature), he often had an adult business partner do so on his behalf because business associates were too skeptical and confused about entering contracts with a teenage boy. (Mukherji signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill that ended child marriage in New Jersey in 2018.)

  • An emancipation loophole removes one of the only options Unchained and other advocates have to help minors whose family is taking them overseas for a forced marriage. Unchained and other advocates usually help such minors to emancipate, but advocates cannot do that if emancipation means the parents can marry off the minor without taking them overseas.

Indeed, just months after Texas passed a bill in 2017 that allowed child marriage only for emancipated teens, that loophole trapped a 16-year-old Unchained client in a nightmarish scenario. Her parents were planning to take her overseas to force her to marry, and the courts refused to intervene to stop the trip. Unchained would have helped the girl to seek emancipation so she could refuse to travel with her parents, but, with the new law in place, Unchained could not seek emancipation for the girl out of fear her parents would immediately pounce on her emancipated status and coerce her to marry in Texas.

If the new law in Texas were a “brightline” law preventing all marriage before 18, without an emancipation exception, the girl could have sought emancipation. She would have then had two years to finish high school, find a college and plan her next steps without concern that her parents would pressure or trick her into marriage.

  • Marriage before 18 is a human rights abuse that destroys American girls’ health, education and economic opportunities and significantly increases their risk of experiencing violence. The devastating impacts of this human rights abuse do not disappear if we stamp “emancipated” on a girl’s forehead.
  • The whole world, including the U.S., has promised to end child marriage by year 2030, under United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.3. If other countries attempted to get around this worthy goal by emancipating girls before marriage and then insisting it is no longer “child marriage,” we would cry foul. So let’s not allow it in the U.S.
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