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‘Why Is Child Marriage Still Legal?’: A Young Lawmaker Tackles a Hidden Problem

CONCORD, N.H. — One day in the middle of September, Cassie Levesque walked up a carpeted hallway toward a committee room in New Hampshire’s capitol complex. Wearing a navy-blue dress and matching mask, with her thick glasses pushed up atop her head, the 22-year-old state lawmaker was prepared for perhaps the most consequential vote of her young career. The Children and Family Law Committee, which she sits on, was about to consider her bill to ban child marriage.

Levesque was hopeful but still unsure of her bill’s chances. All the Democrats on the committee had pledged their support for her bill. But the majority of Republicans hadn’t shown their hand.

Levesque had worked for this day for a long time. In 2017, as a part of a Girl Scout project, she lobbied the New Hampshire legislature to act against child marriage. She was 17, old enough to marry in her state, but not old enough to vote. A year later, Levesque, by then a college freshman, stood next to Gov. Chris Sununu as he signed a law raising New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age to 16 — up from 13 for girls and 14 for boys. “Cassie… really enlightened, I think, the entire state,” the governor said. But to Levesque, the new law was a disappointing compromise. She wanted New Hampshire to become the first state to raise its minimum marriage age to 18, with no exceptions.

With unfinished business, Levesque won a seat in the state legislature later that same year, becoming the youngest lawmaker in the Capitol — and also a burgeoning national voice in a movement that was just getting traction.

In 2017, all 50 states allowed minors to marry in some cases. Since 2018, six states have banned all marriages before 18: Delaware and New Jersey in 2018, Pennsylvania and Minnesota in 2020, Rhode Island and New York in 2021. Other states have recently tightened permissive child marriage laws, raising ages and adding some safeguards. But most states still allow teens to marry at 16 or 17 if parents and a judge consent. Some allow 14- or 15-year-olds to marry. Nine states still have no minimum marriage age at all, including liberal states such as California — where opponents of ending child marriage include civil libertarians on the left as well as family-first conservatives.

Though fewer minors marry in the U.S. than in the past, child marriage still happens here. The U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimated that there were nearly 88,000 married teens ages 15 to 17 nationwide in 2019. An April 2021 study by the activist group Unchained At Last, funded by the Gates Foundation, estimated that 297,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, and that 60,000 of them were under their state’s age of sexual consent.

“A hundred years ago, women were still getting married young,” said Levesque. “Now we understand that kids need to be kids. They need to be able to grow up, because if they’re thrown right into adulthood, they tend to sink versus swim.”

Levesque and other anti-child-marriage activists argue that too many parents and grooms coerce girls into marriage, for reasons ranging from patriarchal cultural traditions to exploitation. The typical American child marriage isn’t a Romeo-and-Juliet story of teenagers in love, they say; more than 80 percent involve a girl under 18 marrying an adult, often someone several years older. Child marriage, they warn, undermines rape laws. Once child brides are trapped in a coercive marriage, it’s hard for them to escape; minors often find it hard to obtain a divorce, advocates say, and often can’t get into women’s shelters.

“It’s not just the 16-, 17-year-old-puppy love,” said Levesque. “It’s the 16-year-old marrying the 20-something-plus-year-old who is a family friend from a different country, who’s going to take them, and then they’ll be gone.”

Throughout her three years in the legislature, Levesque has advanced arguments like this from her seat on the Children and Family Law Committee. In February 2021, she rallied 13 child-marriage opponents to testify via Zoom, including five child-marriage survivors from states including California, Texas and Maryland (though not New Hampshire), who described their marriages as forced or coercive. “I was 16 when I was forced to marry while living in a cult in California,” testified one witness. “I was forced to marry a 28-year-old after an engagement of three days. … And then I was taken to the South Pacific for 2 1/2 years. They took my passport.” One advocate for banning child marriage argued that judicial review of marriage petitions is often ineffective at stopping forced weddings, because teens fearful of familial violence “have to choose between telling the truth and facing repercussion back home or lying to the court.” Another witness noted that a 2020 U.N. report found linkages between forced marriage and human trafficking.

Levesque and activists who testified in February offered statistics showing that the likelihood of divorce approaches 80 percent for those who marry before 18. Married teen mothers are less likely to return to school than unmarried teen mothers, which often means increased poverty later in life. And women who married as girls are much more likely to end up with mental-health struggles.

But as she walked into the committee room — the first time since the pandemic began that the group had convened in person — she wondered whether that testimony had made any impact on her colleagues. The fact that none of the Republican members wore masks was a sign that bipartisanship would be scarce.

As soon as the chair gaveled the meeting to order, a Republican lawmaker moved to declare Levesque’s bill “inexpedient to legislate,” New Hampshire jargon for recommending that the full House reject the bill. He didn’t offer a reason.

“I would definitely like to see this put through,” Levesque responded, quietly but firmly, “because even though the [age] 16 bill is helping, still we’re seeing a lot of marriages still happening. And this can lead to further problems down the road.”

Kim Rice, the Republican committee chair, responded. “Just so everyone knows, I did ask the committee researcher to send me data, and in 2019, there were five 17-year-olds who got married. In 2020, there was a total of zero.” It’s the only explanation for what happened next: The committee voted down the bill, 8-7, on party lines.

After the committee vote, Levesque was disappointed but undaunted. Her bill would have one more chance: a vote by the entire New Hampshire House. “I presented them with numerous facts, and they still didn’t change their minds,” she said of the committee’s Republicans. The child-marriage numbers Rice cited didn’t faze her. “It’s happening, whether we like it or not,” Levesque said, “and five is way too many.”

Levesque was 15 and imagining a career in photography when she first heard about child marriage. A lot of women in her family had married young, so her mother had raised her to be independent and self-supporting instead. “I was the person outside of politics who was just like, ‘Down with the patriarchy,’” she recalls. “I was taught there’s not always going to be someone to advocate for me, so I have to advocate for myself.”

Then, at a 2015 conference for high-school Girl Scouts in Rhode Island, Levesque heard presenters from UNICEF USA talk about gender inequality, child marriage and human trafficking. The message that girls in trouble needed other girls to advocate for them resonated with Levesque. Back home in New Hampshire, she looked up her state’s laws and was appalled to learn that girls as young as 13 could be married there. She asked state representatives she’d met through Girl Scouts to sponsor a bill raising the marriage age to 18.

Soon, Levesque was lobbying legislators at the state capitol in Concord. “She was very, very shy,” recalls former state Rep. Jackie Cilley, a Democrat who represented Levesque’s hometown of Barrington, “but this is an issue that really had her heart and soul. She pushed through that challenge, speaking to groups, to committee hearings.”

At first, Cilley was incredulous that 13-year-old girls could marry in New Hampshire — but once she confirmed that Levesque was right, Cilley and other sponsors brought a bill to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 before the state House in early 2017. It would’ve been the nation’s first, and opposition emerged. Some Republican legislators argued that 17-year-olds joining the military should be able to marry their pregnant girlfriends. The bill failed on a 179-168 vote, with all Republicans and 18 Democrats voting no.

The vote left Levesque surprised, but wiser. “We all thought it was a pretty easy bill,” she recalled. “It was just fixing an old law that needed to be changed.” The defeat taught her a lesson about politics. “It’s not going to be all straightforward,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult.”

But thanks to Levesque, the once-obscure issue of child marriage got a burst of national attention. A Boston TV report showed Levesque, wearing her badge-adorned scouting vest, making a succinct case for the bill. It was a sharp contrast with the dismissiveness of a then-representative who said he didn’t want to change a century-old law because of “a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project.” “You’ve made a very good point!” Levesque recalls thinking. “I’m still a kid!” — but still of legal age to marry. It was a ripe target for comedian Samantha Bee, who mocked the state rep on her TBS show Full Frontal.

As Levesque’s activism grew, her grandmother confided in her about her experience as a child bride. “She never shared about it with her children,” Levesque said. Born in 1927, her grandmother had married a Navy sailor at age 16 to escape living with an uncle who molested her. But her husband became emotionally abusive. Returning from deployments to Hawaii, he’d brag about his many infidelities. She left him when she was 18 and later remarried. “I want to tell you the story about it,’” Levesque recalls her grandmother saying. “She wanted it to be heard.” Levesque now tells her grandmother’s story in hearings about her bill.

In 2018, Cilley proposed compromise bills to raise New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age to 16 and to require judges to grant marriages involving 16-to-17-year-olds only “upon clear and convincing evidence” that it was in the minor’s best interest. Sununu endorsed the bills, and they passed easily. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Levesque said of the compromise, “but it’s a stepping stone toward the right direction.” Levesque brought her grandmother with her to the signing ceremony.

Around the same time, Cilley was retiring, so local Democrats asked Levesque to run for state representative in the multi-member district representing Barrington, her hometown. “We need younger people who are bolder,” said state Rep. Ellen Read, a Democrat from nearby Newmarket who helped recruit Levesque to run. “We really need people who are willing to fight for the right thing, not necessarily what is in their best interest career-wise. Cassie has shown she’s willing to stand up and fight for something, even if it upsets people.”

Levesque paid the $2 filing fee with two Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. She ran on addressing water-quality problems and representing small-town businesses — a good fit for Barrington, a rural town known for the 152-year-old Calef’s Country Store. “The first time that I ever voted was the time that I voted for myself,” she said.

In a four-person race for two seats, Levesque came in first, defeating two Republicans in their 60s, an Air Force veteran and a library trustee. “I’m very young,” she explains, “so I wasn’t the typical politician most people think of.”

Child marriage has existed throughout American history. Though it has declined in recent decades, especially as the stigma has lessened around unwed motherhood, it has never completely disappeared, said Nicholas Syrett, author of the 2016 book American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.

“It has never been a norm, but there have always been a significant number of people who have married as minors,” said Syrett. In 1960, 6.6 percent of American girls aged 15 to 17 were married; in 2010, only 0.4 percent were, according to Census figures cited in Syrett’s book. “The stigma around illegitimacy and unwed motherhood really declined.”

But even that small percentage represents a surprisingly high number of people. Unchained At Last’s study, based on full marriage-license data from 32 states and partial data from 12 more, confirmed that at least 232,474 children married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. The study found that the number of minors marrying has decreased nearly every year, from about 20,000 in 2002 to about 2,500 in 2018.

“People who object to banning child marriage believe a baby will be better off if its parents are married,” Syrett said. “There’s not much evidence to suggest that’s true, if the parents are poor and minors to begin with.” Quite the contrary, Syrett adds: “From the early 20th century onward, the younger you get married, the more likely you are to get divorced.”

The politics of child marriage don’t map neatly onto our partisan divides. In some states, child-marriage bans have passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. In Pennsylvania, a Republican-sponsored law prohibiting marriage before age 18 passed the Republican legislature unanimously in 2020. In Minnesota that same year, a Democrat-sponsored child-marriage law passed the GOP-controlled Senate without opposition.

But in New Hampshire and some other states, debate about child-marriage bans does seem to have a partisan edge. Democrats support a ban, concerned about exploitation of girls, while Republicans see the bans as government overreach into parents’ and teens’ decisions. Conservative legislators in states such as Louisiana and Idaho — which each recorded about 5,100 marriages involving minors between 2010 and 2018 — have refused to pass similar bans, saying pregnant teens shouldn’t be kept from marrying. Instead, the two states, which had no minimum marriage age four years ago, have since set it at 16.

New Jersey’s first attempt to ban child marriage failed in 2017, when then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill, saying it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State.” (He didn’t specify which religious customs.) Since New Jersey allows pregnant girls to get an abortion without parental consent or notification, Christie also argued, banning 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying was “disingenuous” and an “inconsistency in logic.” In 2018, the reintroduced child-marriage ban passed the state House, 59-0, and the Senate, 30-5, despite opposition from members of Orthodox Jewish communities who wanted a religious exemption. Christie’s successor, Democrat Phil Murphy, signed it into law.

The issue breaks down differently at the federal level. Though the U.S. State Department declared child marriage a human-rights violation in 2016, U.S. immigration law includes no minimum age for visa petitions involving marriages. A 2019 U.S. Senate report found that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved 8,686 visa petitions involving minor spouses and fiancées from 2007 to 2017. (Mexican nationals made up 40 percent of the approved beneficiaries. Middle Eastern nationals, mostly from Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Yemen, had the highest approval rates for petitions.) In Congress, it is conservative Republicans who carry the anti-child marriage banner. In 2019, Republican U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton proposed a bill to require both parties in a spousal visa to be 18.

In a few states, though, opposition to banning child marriage comes from the left. In California, a bill to raise the marriage age to 18 failed in 2017 after state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood opposed it; the ACLU argued that the bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause.” A compromise law, signed in 2018, requires judges to look for evidence of coercion before granting a marriage license to a minor.

California is one of nine states with no minimum marriage age. Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democrat from Laguna Beach, wants to change that. “In a state where we like to think of ourselves as setting the trend lines, this is a place where we’re just failing,” she said. She plans to introduce this year a new bill to ban child marriage.

Petrie-Norris said some abortion-rights supporters are concerned that a child-marriage ban could become a slippery slope affecting reproductive rights; California is one 11 states with no parental involvement in minors’ abortions. “I think these are fundamentally different issues,” she said. “We have minimum ages to smoke cigarettes, drive a car and buy alcohol. None of that has any implication for the right to access reproductive health care in my mind.”

The California debate is stymied by a lack of baseline facts. It’s one of six states that provided no marriage-license data to Unchained At Last for its 2021 study. The California Department of Public Health, responding to a reporting requirement in the 2018 law, counts 17 marriages of minors statewide in 2019 and 17 in 2020 — including two men, ages 25 and 22, marrying 15-year-old girls. Petrie-Norris said she’s struggling to reconcile those double-digit figures with the U.S. Census American Community Survey estimate that 12,000 married minors ages 15 to 17 lived in California in 2019. “I worry it’s more likely something falling through the cracks with respect to reporting,” she said.

In New Hampshire, too, a debate about the prevalence of child marriage is part of the controversy. State records show that 407 minors married in New Hampshire between 1995 and 2021. Eighty percent were girls marrying men 18 years or older. But even before the 2018 law raised the minimum marriage age to 16, child marriage in New Hampshire was on the decline. Annual numbers of girls marrying in the state have fallen from about 35 in 1995 to five each in 2019 and 2021. Now, opponents of reform argue that child marriage has become too rare to merit banning.

“I don’t think it’s a huge problem in New Hampshire,” said Rice, the Republican chair of New Hampshire’s Children and Family Law Committee.

Rice defends the right of older teens to marry. “If a 17-year-old gets pregnant and they decide to get married, that’s between them and their parents.” Indeed, activists’ testimony about teen marriages’ high failure rates seems only to have hardened Rice’s opposition to a ban. “I don’t want to put so much negativity on marriage,” said Rice, who said at the February committee hearing that she married at 19. “I don’t want to tell someone who got married at 17 that you’re doomed to fail. That’s not the attitude to have towards marriage. That’s probably why everybody gets divorced these days.”

Levesque has heard such arguments before. “A couple of representatives have said, ‘I got married young, and I’m still married to them, and it was a good marriage,’” said Levesque. “And I said, ‘That’s really great, [but you] are the 20 percent, versus the 80 percent who end up in situations that they wish could’ve been stopped.”

In late September, a week after the disappointing committee vote, Levesque took a train to Boston to join a protest against child marriage organized by Unchained At Last. She donned a white bridal gown, draped chains on her wrists, and duct-taped an X over her mouth. She was one of a dozen child-marriage opponents dressed in white who marched from Boston Common uphill to the Massachusetts State House. Lesvesque hoped that passing a ban in Massachusetts might pressure her own legislature to follow suit.

The protest brides gathered on the steps in front of the gold-domed building. Levesque held a sign: “Why is child marriage still legal in MA?” A driver passing by on Beacon Street honked in support of the protest, then another.

Fraidy Reiss, executive director of the anti-child-marriage group Unchained At Last, led the protest through a white-and-red megaphone.

“There are 44 states in this great country that still allow marriage under the age of 18,” Reiss said. “Is that OK?”

“NO!” shouted the brides.

This year, Massachusetts may become the seventh state to ban child marriage. Rep. Kay Khan, the bill’s author, has lined up two-thirds of Massachusetts’ senators and House members as co-sponsors. Massachusetts has no minimum age of marriage if parents and a judge consent. Khan said 1,231 minors, some as young as 14, were married in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2016; 84 percent were girls marrying men, as opposed to boys and girls marrying someone their own age. Between July 2016 and June 2021, state probate court records show, judges fielded 130 more applications for marriages of minors.

“Once a marriage contract is signed, it’s very difficult to get out of,” Khan, also dressed in white, said at the rally. “If she’s under 18, it’s very difficult to find a lawyer, very difficult to go to court and ask for help.”

Khan’s effort in Massachusetts seems to be moving forward, even as Levesque’s in New Hampshire has stalled.

“Cassie is determined,” said Reiss, the national activist, after the rally. “No matter how hard New Hampshire makes it, she’s determined to end child marriage. I’ll be honest: I gave up on New Hampshire years ago. But thank goodness we have Cassie, who has not given up.”

Reiss said Unchained At Last’s next goal is to convince other Northeastern states to join Rhode Island in banning child marriage. “Our strategy is going to be, get every state around New Hampshire to end child marriage, and then tell New Hampshire, ‘Now do you want to become the destination site for child marriage?’” said Reiss. “Because guess where parents are going to start taking their children to force them to marry? New Hampshire.”

Levesque said her state often waits to see how liberal reforms go in neighboring Massachusetts, Vermont or Maine before adopting them. So, for now, she’s giving advice to Girl Scouts in Maine and California who want to ban child marriage in their states.

Meanwhile, in her three years in the 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives, Levesque has emerged as an advocate for abortion rights and for raising the state minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $15. “She’s not afraid to do the right thing,” said Ellen Read, the fellow legislator who helped recruit Levesque to run. “Her demeanor is quiet, and she’s very sweet, but when it comes to a bill, she’s all business.”

This past Wednesday, Levesque stood to address her colleagues and make one last argument for her bill. The New Hampshire House, seeking a bigger space than its Capitol chambers amid the Covid-19 Omicron outbreak, had convened in an expo center at a Manchester hotel. Wearing a black plaid coat over a white shirt with black polka dots, Levesque spoke through a black mask.

“Not once has anyone, or any organization, presented data to support the opinion that child marriage has any benefits to children,” said Levesque, pushing her soft voice to maximum volume. “Six states have seen the harm that child marriages do and made the decision to end child marriage. So I ask you, ‘Why can’t we?’”

Kim Rice, the Republican committee chair, spoke next to defend the Republicans’ recommendation to reject the bill. The 10 marriages of 17-year-olds in New Hampshire in the past three years, Rice argued, “were informed decisions made between the parents, judges and [teens].” Levesque’s bill, Rice added, is “trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist in New Hampshire.”

The House voted Levesque’s bill down, 192-165. But Levesque said she isn’t done.

Levesque plans to run for a third term in 2022, then try again to ban child marriage in 2023. As older legislators retire, she said, she’ll have another chance to press her arguments. “I’m going to talk to those that are opposed the bill and see why,” she said. If it’s still about wanting to let teen moms marry young, she’ll show them her research about child marriages’ frequent harms and high failure rates. “I’ve shown,” Levesque said, “why that argument is not really a great answer anymore.”

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