House panel weighs bills ending child marriage in Michigan

By: - May 10, 2023 2:52 pm

Nina Van Harn (left) testifies dressed in a wedding dress covered in the names of married children in the Michigan House Judiciary Committee meeting on May 10, 2023. | | Anna Liz Nichols

Forty-two states currently allow child marriage and seven states have no statutory minimum age, including Michigan. 

Proponents and child marriage survivors testified in a state legislative committee Wednesday in support of legislation to end child marriage in Michigan.

This package “costs nothing, but would mean everything” to victims of child marriage, Fraidy Reiss told lawmakers during the House Judiciary Committee meeting. Reiss is the founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit advocating for an end to forced and child marriages in the United States. 

“It harms no one, except child rapists, and it ends a human rights abuse,” said Reiss, who is a survivor of forced marriage.

In Michigan, 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental consent and those younger than 16 can get married with the addition of a judge’s approval. There is no minimum age on the books in Michigan to get married.

Nina Van Harn (left) testifies dressed in a wedding dress covered in the names of married children in the Michigan House Judiciary Committee meeting on May 10, 2023. | Anna Liz Nichols

The bill package, which did not receive a vote today, would end all exemptions for marriages for those below the age of 18. The main bill in the package, HB 4293, sponsored by Rep Kara Hope (D-Holt), removes language allowing marriage before the age of 18 and the other bills, HB 4294 through HB 4302, work to reflect the new minimum.

The current law undermines Michigan’s age of consent, which is 16, essentially giving “Get Out of Jail cards to child rapists” if they marry their victims, Reiss said.

About 5,400 children got married in Michigan between 2000 and 2021, according to Unchained at Last.

Nina Van Harn testified that her mother got married at age 16 to her 22-year-old husband and experienced various forms of abuse almost instantly after getting married. Van Harn read a letter she said her mother wrote in support of the ban on child marriage.

“I was groomed as a child. Then my adult spouse essentially became my parent. He made me behave the way he wanted. He forced me to obey him,” Van Harn read from the letter. “There were many facets of my child marriage which negatively affected my emotional and educational growth. As a teen bride, I experienced extreme psychological, sexual and physical abuse.”

Van Harn said her father then tried to marry her off at age 16, which she avoided, but ended up being forced to marry at age 19. 

“I suffered the same abuses. … My education stopped. My options for employment were limited to what he would allow me to do from home. … I wasn’t allowed to leave the house without permission. He took my car away until after I got pregnant,” Van Harn said.

It wasn’t until her husband had made plans to choose husbands in the future for her 7- and 10 year-old daughters that Van Harn left her marriage.

The names of child marriage victims in Michigan written on the wedding dress Nina Van Harn said she wore when she was forced into a marriage at age 19. The ages on the dress go as low as 14. Van Harn and other advocates to end child marriage in Michigan testified at the state House Judiciary Committee meeting on May 10, 2023. | Anna Liz Nichols

But only one parent needs to consent to the marriage of a minor, so her husband could legally marry off Van Harn’s daughters in Michigan.

If a parent is planning to marry off their child, there is little that child can do in the state of Michigan, AHA Foundation Director of Policy and Women’s Programs Michele Hanash said.

Children can be sent to jail for fleeing and advocates could also face jail time for harboring a runaway, meaning that domestic and sexual violence shelters aren’t a option for minors, Hanash said. Additionally, children would face extreme difficulty retaining legal representation to both contest a marriage and annul it.

Child marriage is not a small issue or merely a decision made between teenagers in relationships, Hanash said. Of the approximately 5,400 child marriages that happened in Michigan between 2000 and 2001 reported by Unchained at Last, 95% of them were between girls and older men, Hanash said.

“Child marriage destroys nearly every aspect of a girl’s life here in the U.S. It destroys her opportunities for economic opportunities for health for education, we know she’s more likely to be subjected to intimate partner violence, sexual violence, physical abuse, so it’s extremely dangerous,” Hanash said.


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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.