Politicians in the state of Kentucky who are fighting to put an end to the child marriage have had a potential bill postponed due to opposition from conservatives who still support underage marriage.
Under current laws, a 16 to 17-year-old can be legally married so long as they have the consent of their parent(s) in certain states, including Kentucky.
Additionally, any child under the age of 16 can get married if they are pregnant, as long as they’re marrying the father of the child.
The new bill would stop anyone aged 16 or under from getting married and prevent 17-year-olds from getting hitched without the approval of a judge. The judge in question would need to be shown evidence the teenager in question is mature enough, self-reliant and has not been unwillingly persuaded into wedlock.
The bill would also prevent a 17-year-old from marrying someone who is more than four years their senior. According to The Independent, more than 200,000 children under the age of 18 in America have been married between the year 2000 and 2015.
During that period there were 10,618 marriages in Kentucky, 279 of which took place in 2015. In some cases, children as young as 10-years-old have been married, while in most cases the minor is female and her spouse an older man.
Jeanne Smoot, a senior counsel at the Tahirh Justice Center, a national organisation that strives for legal and social justice for girls and women, said:
This bill would take Kentucky from behind the national curve to a leadership position in the movement to end child marriage.
In the last two years, four states – Virginia, Texas, New York and Florida – have passed legislation which prohibits underage marriage – or at least strictly restricts it.
While there is a strong support base for the new bill to be passed in Kentucky from the likes of Whitney Westerfield, the Chairman of Kentucky’s Senate Judiciary Committee, a vote on the bill was delayed last week. This came after conservative organisation Family Foundation of Kentucky voiced their concerns about how the bill would be interpreted.
The conservative group are not opposed to the idea of getting rid of child marriage but they want to make sure parents reserve the right to give permission to minors. The new bill explicitly states the ‘wishes of the parents or legal guardians of the minor’ cannot be considered ‘sufficient evidence’ to allow a 17-year-old to marry.
Those in support of the bill argue it is a vital section.
Mr Westerfield said:
Generally speaking, parents are responsible for their children. However, we’ve been working on a draft that involves parental consent on the front end but requires judicial oversight in each case to prevent abuse like we heard about during committee testimony.
Donna Pollard was 16 years old when she was married to someone twice her age. She says she was encouraged to go through with the ceremony by her ‘very abusive mother who had never wanted me to begin with’, therefore it was ‘easy for me to be manipulated at that age’.
Kentucky’s bill to protect girls from predators seeking to hide behind marriage licenses is gaining national attention. If you live in Kentucky, call your legislators TODAY to show your support for SB 48. @YourVoice_SC https://t.co/UcAHj1XVte
— TahirihJusticeCenter (@tahirihjustice) March 5, 2018
She now runs a national advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault, abuse and exploitation dubbed Survivors’ Corner. The group Tweeted that:
Child marriage perpetuates cycles of poverty, interrupted educational opportunities, domestic violence, and sexual assault whether locally or internationally… Communities can’t thrive with these problems.
Kentucky’s Attorney General, Andy Beshear, who is a strong supporter of the bill, wrote on Twitter:
The General Assembly must pass SB 48, a bill that would outlaw child marriage in Kentucky. A parent should not be allowed to consent to their child’s rape and survivors of child marriage deserve a unanimous vote. ^ AB
— KY Attorney General (@kyoag) March 2, 2018
Despite the setback, the vote will likely to be re-scheduled this week. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 1.2 billion girls will be forced into child marriage by 2050.