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Located smack dab in the heart of the Midwest, Missouri isn’t the first place most people would choose for a destination wedding. For child brides, however? It’s their first, and sometimes only, choice.
According to a new report by the Kansas City Star, Missouri has some of the most lenient laws regarding the marriage of minors out of any state. While other states require either a judge’s order, parents’ permission, proof of pregnancy, or some combination thereof before minors are allowed to marry — and that’s in places where the law allows it at all — in Missouri, children as young as 15 can get married as long as they have the approval of one parent (the second parent need not agree). If children younger than 15 wish to get married in Missouri, then a judge’s permission is required. And if a married minor wants to file for divorce? A parent’s signature is required.
Such permissive laws have made Missouri a popular wedding destination for couples that involve minors, with couples often traveling from neighboring states, if not further, to legitimize their union. Since 1999, the Kansas City Star found, 8,350 children under the age of 18 (7,050 girls and 1,300 boys) have gotten married in Missouri, making it the state with the third highest number of child marriages, ranking behind Texas (40,000) and Florida (16,000). 57,800 Americans ages 15 to 17 were married as of 2014.
While some marriages involving minors are cases of teens marrying someone their own age, of the 1000 15-year-old girls married in Missouri since 1999, 300 of them married men age 21 or older. In some cases, young girls marry their boyfriends in an attempt to spare him a rape charge, and in other cases, minors are forced by parents to marry after an unplanned pregnancy. Whatever the circumstances, children who get married face a number of obstacles; because they’re typically not yet old enough to get a driver’s license, the Star found, continuing their education and/or securing a job becomes a difficulty, making them even more dependent on their new spouses.
Is change on the horizon? The number of marriages involving minors has decreased over the years, from 104 married in 1999 to just 16 in 2015, and a number of politicians are fighting to change marriage laws in Missouri.
House Bill 1630, which has already passed out of the House, would introduce 15 as the minimum age to get a marriage license in Missouri, and would reportedly require marriages involving 15- or 16-year-olds to have the approval of a judge and a parent (of both partners) before a license is granted. Marriages involving a person age 21 or older and another under the age of 17 would be prohibited.
Those in support of the bill believe that the new legislation could help decrease the number of forced marriages and other inappropriate unions.
“These are young women being forced to marry someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart,” state Representative Jean Evans, the St. Louis County Republican sponsoring the bill, said during the Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.
Not everyone is in favor of the bill; some have argued that introducing such stipulations infringes on the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.
“This only takes (away) the parental rights of good law-abiding citizens,” Benton County Representative Wanda Brown said.
Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that child marriage can result in sexual assault and domestic violence, Missouri Lawyers Media reports.
“Although domestic violence can happen to anyone, we found those who were married younger or had multiple children had a lot more barriers,” she said.
Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a national organization committed to ending child marriage in America, pointed out the dangers of not only making it so easy for children to be forced into marriages by their guardians, but also requiring that same guardian’s permission to exit the union, even in abusive or otherwise dangerous situations.
“The most important reason we need to end marriage before 18 is because it can so easily be forced,” he said. “It is evil to give children the so-called right to enter into this really serious contract before they have the right to safely navigate this contract, to say no to the contract, to be able to get out of the contract. That is evil.”
He continued, “It’s like taking somebody, blindfolding her, taping up her mouth, tying her hands behind her back, tying her ankles together and then throwing her into the pool and saying, ‘We’re giving her the right to swim.’”
[Photo: Getty Images]