Calling it an “archaic practice” and a “human rights abuse,” Democrats in Lansing this week reintroduced legislation to end child marriage in Michigan.
State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) and Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) on Thursday held a press conference to announce a package of 10 bills that would prohibit any marriage involving a child younger than 18.
Currently in Michigan, 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental approval, while anyone younger than 16 can get married with the approval of a parent and a judge, with no minimum age requirement.
“Marriage before the age of 18 can have some pretty disastrous impacts on the health and safety and well-being of young people,” said Anthony, who noted that people signing a contract are required to be at least 18. She said it should be no different for entering into a matrimonial covenant.
“Something as serious as the institution of marriage should not be done by force, should not be done because of financial benefit or, in many instances, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, but should be done by two consenting adults who are taking the next step and hopefully for a lifetime, building a life together.”
Unchained Michigan, an organization dedicated to ending child marriage in Michigan, estimates that between 2000 and 2021, approximately 5,400 children were married in Michigan.
“That doesn’t sound like a big number, but for those individuals, it’s devastating,” said Hope. “It ruins their lives, and there’s no reason for it.”
Courtney Kosnick, who said she endured 23 years of an abusive relationship after being married at 16, also spoke on Thursday.
“I know firsthand the devastating impact the child marriage can have on a young person’s life,” she said. “And I cannot overstate the urgency of this issue. The bills will make our state safer for all children, and our state will no longer sanction what the U.N. calls a human rights violation. We will no longer have girls find themselves trapped in a marriage with no way out.”
Kosnick was a junior in high school with a full pre-med scholarship when she met the man she said would groom her to be his wife.
“This man was 28 years old. I was too young to fully understand the consequences of my actions, and I was not given the opportunity to make an informed decision,” she said. “My childhood was abruptly cut short and my dreams and aspirations were swept aside in favor of a life that I would not have chosen for myself. Unfortunately, I also did not have a parent who understood what she was asking me to do. We were poor and he came from a better-off family. All it took was a little attention from him and two short months, and he had convinced my mother that I should be married.”
Kosnick said she believed she could just continue her life, finish college and pursue her dreams. However, she quickly learned that was not to be.
“I was so very, very wrong,” she said. “The fact is, the minute I married this man, everything changed. My husband controlled every aspect of my life. His physical, emotional and sexual abuse began on my wedding night. I could not find a way out.”
Kosnick said after just a month she realized she needed to get out of the marriage, but found herself in the tragic position of being old enough to be married — but too young to file for divorce.
And because she was still legally a juvenile, she was turned away from domestic abuse shelters.
Courtney Kosnick said after just a month she realized she needed to get out of the marriage, but found herself in the tragic position of being old enough to be married — but too young to file for divorce. And because she was still legally a juvenile, she was turned away from domestic abuse shelters.
“It took me 23 years to escape this marriage,” she said. “I worked; I started a company. I had employees. To the outside world, we looked OK. The fact is it was all a mirage. I had nothing in my name. I had no credit. I had no access to the wages that I earned. Everything was under his control. This experience still scars me seven years after my divorce. I lost precious years of my life to a situation that should have never been allowed to occur. The power dynamic that is created when a child marries an adult is permanent and it is never ever going to allow that child to be on equal terms.”
Kosnick said she never intended to be an advocate, especially after she divorced and began to live her own life. However, she says that changed when her ex-husband attempted to arrange a meeting with her 15-year-old daughter and a 40-year-old man with the intention to marry her off at 16.
“It was then that I realized I had to do something under our laws,” she said. “In this state, it only takes one parent to sign a marriage license. There’s no requirement to prove physical or legal custody, just parentage. That is simple. That’s a birth certificate. Had I not discovered his intention, she would have gone to visit him on a weekend and never have come home. She would have been married off, and I could have done nothing at all to stop it or to undo it. I could not have saved her.”
This is the fourth time Anthony has introduced bills to end child marriage, with the three previous attempts failing to ever get a hearing while Republicans were in charge of the Legislature.
Anthony said she was confident that would change this time, as Democrats now hold narrow majorities in both chambers.
“In 2018, when I first introduced this bill, year after year since that time, we have heard promises from the Republican-led legislature that they would take up this bill,” she said. “Some have done symbolic hearings, some have had very fancy press conferences and press releases saying that they would end it, but yet the mostly men with these gavels have chosen not to take action to protect girls in this state.
“I want to be very clear about that. Those of us who have been introducing these bills have not had the power to get it to the governor’s desk, but today is a new day in the Legislature.”
Hope told the Michigan Advance stories like Kosnick’s are why she, Anthony and the other bill sponsors, including Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) and Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), are determined to get these bills to the governor’s desk.
“It really seems like such a common sense thing that 99 people out of a hundred would support once they learn that it’s going on,” Hope said.
That makes it all the more frustrating for Hope that Republican leadership failed to follow through on the legislation in the past, especially considering the current GOP emphasis on using the “groomer” label against the LGBTQ+ community and the Democrats who support LGBTQ+ rights.
“They were never given a hearing, so they just sat on a shelf and it was frustrating,” she said, noting that when Anthony first introduced the bills in 2018, then-state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) joined her on the package.
“He was very vocal about it and did some press and everything, and then pretty much disappeared,” she said. “And so that was disappointing, and the experience hasn’t really improved the last two terms. But we’ll see what happens. I’m optimistic. This is definitely the best chance that we’ve had since I’ve been in the Legislature.”
“The time is now,” said Hope. “It’s a human rights abuse. It’s child abuse; it’s sexual abuse. There’s no reason for it to continue in the year 2023.”
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