SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A push against underage marriage in the U.S. is coming to Utah, where a lawmaker wants to raise the legal marriage age to 18 to prevent girls from being pressured into the unions associated with higher poverty and lower education rates.
There have been thousands of underage marriages in the U.S. since the year 2000, and until recently more than half of states didn't set a limit on how young someone could get married if they met criteria like parental approval, Jeanne Smoot said with the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center.
"Many people assume this was something from generations that's no longer happening in the U.S.," she said Friday. But marriage data show more than 200,000 people under 18 got married between the years 2000 and 2015, she said. "We know there are significant numbers and we know there are some shockingly young minors who are married."
The nonprofit women's legal advocacy group has pushed for reforms that started in 2016 when Virginia limited marriage to legal adults. Delaware became this first state to ban anyone under 18 from getting married, even with parental permission, earlier this year.
Such a law might have changed Heidi Clark's life. The Orem woman got pregnant at 16 and married soon after, under pressure from her boyfriend's religious community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Pennsylvania, she said. A second daughter followed days after she graduated from high school, but the marriage went downhill after her husband was injured at work.
"I always felt a little bit like I was trapped," Clark said, now 40. "I was 17. I was so young."
Determined to make the marriage work, she stayed even as the relationship became abusive. She didn't go to college and when they divorced she had few job prospects and lost custody of her children. She's since managed to rebuild her life and her relationship with her daughters but wants to see other girls spared her experience.
Under current Utah law, people as young as 15 can marry with permission from their parents and the court, while 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission.
Rep. Angela Romero, a Salt Lake City Democrat, wants to see that change and is preparing a proposal to raise the legal marriage age for the next legislative session in 2019. Teenage unions are particularly concerning when there is a large age gap between a bride and a groom, or when a there's pressure to wed due to pregnancy, she said.
"We want to ensure that we're protecting young women and giving them that choice," she said. Utah Health Department data show 253 people under age 18, most of them girls, got married in 2010, the most recent year statewide figures are available.
That puts Utah in the top third of all states when it comes to children married each year, according to data gathered by the Tahirih Justice Center.
Underage marriage in Utah has been associated with some of the state's polygamous groups, but Romero said that's not the only place where it's a problem and it's not her focus. Her proposal would apply to legal marriages; polygamous unions are illegal under the state's bigamy law.
Utah law now allows a marriage exception to statutory rape laws, opening a potential way to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim, Smoot said.
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