Advocates push to outlaw child marriage in Michigan, citing sexual abuse concerns

By: - December 5, 2019 5:33 am

The state Legislature has yet to take up a bipartisan bill package that would outlaw child marriages by raising the minimum age to get married to 18 years old. 

Sarah Anthony

State Reps. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), Graham Filler (R-DeWitt) and Kara Hope (D-Holt) introduced the three-bill package on Jan. 9, the first session day of 2019. 

On the very first day of the 100th Legislature, I joined with two of my mid-Michigan colleagues to introduce legislation to end the antiquated practice and ban child marriage in Michigan,” Anthony told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. 

The package would establish 18 as the minimum age of consent for marriage, prohibit judges from issuing a marriage certificate for individuals younger than 18 and void marriages involving a minor performed after the effective date of the law.

The legislation has been stuck in the state House Judiciary Committee since January. 

Filler, who is the sponsor of House Bill 4004, is also the chair of the Judiciary Committee. When asked why he hasn’t moved the package to a hearing, a representative from Filler’s office says they are “working out the last couple issues” with the legislation. 

State Rep. Graham Filler at the bipartisan expungement press conference in Detroit, Sept. 9, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Under current Michigan law, the minimum age to get married without restrictions is 18. At ages 16 and 17, parental consent is necessary, and for those younger than 16, parental consent and a judge’s approval is needed. With a judge’s approval, there is no age limit to get married in Michigan.

“Michigan is late to the game on this one,” Anthony said. “State legislators across the country are waking up and realizing that perpetuating this system is just too easy for bad actors to take advantage of young girls and boys.”

According to Anthony, seven states recently passed laws that reform marriage policies by increasing the minimum age or preventing large age gaps between spouses. 

Delaware became the first state to ban child marriages completely in May 2018.

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Data from Unchained At Last, a New Jersey-based nonprofit dedicated to ending forced and child marriages in the U.S., shows that been 2000 to 2010 about 4,250 minors got married. 

“This is an area that not only impacts the girls, but it also impacts their education, their families and their economic well-being. For those reasons, it’s very important to not think of it as something that’s just happening abroad or somewhere else, but it’s happening right here in the state of Michigan,” said DeAnna Cambridge, governor-elect of Zonta District 15, the Michigan chapter of an international advocacy organization for violence against women and girls. 

Rep. Sarah Anthony (left) and Deanna Cambridge (right) at a press conference on child marriage, Dec. 4, 2019 | Allison Donahue

Unchained At Last reports that 77% of the children married were minor girls wed to adult men, often with significant age gaps. Some children were married at an age, or involving an age difference with their spouse, that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws.

“These young women and girls are frequently coerced into marrying their rapists or abusers as a way for the family to avoid neglect and assault charges, or to avoid the public stigma attached to rape, sexual abuse or non traditional pregnancy,” Anthony said. “Not only is it morally wrong to coerce an individual into marriage, but the practice also leads to devastating consequences for girls who are married before adulthood.”

Women in the U.S. who marry before 19 are more likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty, are at greater risk of serious health conditions and sexually transmitted diseases and are more susceptible to domestic abuse, according to Unchained At Last statistics

“There are so many other things in our laws that we say you have to be 18 to do. Most legal contracts have to be 18. We don’t let children smoke or do other things. And so going into a contract as serious as a marriage should also be one of the things that should be preserved for adults,” Anthony said. 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.