OLYMPIA — A bill to require a minimum marriage age of 18 has stalled in the Legislature after several years of attempts.
Washington is one of 43 states that allow children to get married, according to Unchained At Last, an organization that advocates against child marriage and forced marriage. It’s also one of a handful of states that don’t specify a minimum age for marriage.
House Bill 1455 seemed to gain momentum after it passed the Washington House 95-0 in early March. But it has languished in the Senate, where it didn’t meet a legislative deadline to get voted out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
The bill stalled as some states have recently taken action to make their marriage age laws stricter. Advocates say child marriage is condemned internationally as a human rights abuse and that it primarily impacts girls.
Children of any age can still get married in Washington. If they’re 17, they can do so with parental consent, and if they’re younger than that, they need approval from a judge.
As of 2014, 4.3 per 1,000 Washingtonians ages 15 to 17 were married, slightly below the national average of 4.6, according to a 2016 analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, has introduced legislation to ban underage marriages in prior sessions, but it didn’t advance.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said she decided to introduce the bill this year after a friend, who was a substitute teacher at the time, showed her students different types of maps, including a map of child marriage laws.
“Some of the kids took exception to that,” Stonier said.
Her friend asked if she would introduce a version of the bill that Stanford had introduced in prior sessions. When the bill got a hearing this year, kids from the class testified in support of the measure, Stonier said.
“Any time we have young people engaged in the civic process, of course it captures my attention,” she said. “So it’s both a good policy to introduce and then also had that added benefit of being something I knew students in my community were watching.”
Stonier and supporters of the bill say that 18-year-olds can get access to certain support that minors can’t.
For instance, some domestic violence shelters turn away minors.
“This is not about maturity. It’s about legal capacity,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last. “You do wake up on your 18th birthday, magically, with the rights of adulthood. And those rights are crucial to navigate a contract as serious as marriage.”
A minor who is 15 to 17 years old can get a protective order on their own in Washington, while those younger than 15 need an adult to petition on their behalf, according to state law.
Legal experts say minors can file for divorce in Washington.
On the form you have to file in order to get divorced in the state, “there’s no place where you have to state or allege your age for the purpose of the dissolution, the divorce,” said Terry Price, associate teaching professor at the University of Washington Law School.
Under state law, a minor married to an adult in Washington “shall be deemed and taken to be of full age.” State law also says emancipated minors can “sue or be sued,” and divorce is essentially a suit, said Karen Pillar, director of policy and advocacy at TeamChild, a civil legal services office serving young people 12 to 24.
But the reality is that even emancipated minors can “run into roadblocks,” Pillar said.
“We have emancipated youth who, the banks will still give them a hard time about opening a bank account,” she said.
Right now, when two people are getting married in Washington, the county auditor requires each person to file an affidavit showing that they are each at least 18 years old.
But a license can be granted to a person who is 17 years old with written consent from their father, mother or legal guardian.
Reiss said that “almost always,” the people forcing children to marry are their own parents, so getting their consent doesn’t protect them.
People younger than 17 can’t get married unless a superior court judge waives the age requirement based on “a showing of necessity.”
What that means isn’t explicitly stated in the law, Stonier said, but it’s often interpreted to mean that one person entering the marriage is pregnant.
But a kid coerced to get married by their parents is often too afraid to tell the truth to a judge, Reiss said.
“These are kids who are financially and emotionally dependent on their parents,” Reiss said. “How can we possibly expect them to figure out some way to speak up?”
Advocates say marriage can put a veneer of legal approval onto relationships between children and adults.
Sara Tasneem told lawmakers in late January that when she was 15 and visiting her dad one summer, he forced her to marry a man 13 years her senior in a spiritual ceremony. She was then taken out of the country and raped. The legal marriage took place later, back in the U.S., when she was 16 and six months pregnant with the man’s child.
“My pregnant belly should have alerted authorities to a rape, instead of rubber-stamping my marriage certificate,” Tasneem said. “That marriage certificate was a way for my perpetrators … to not be charged with any of the crimes they were committing against me: kidnapping, rape, sexual assault, among many others.”
Between 2000 and 2014, about 4,400 children were married in Washington, according to an analysis by Unchained At Last and 11 research partners. That analysis also found that nationally, 86% of the children married between 2000 and 2018 were girls.
Many Americans aren’t aware that child marriage is an issue here, Reiss said.
She said that while there’s no organized opposition to ending child marriage, state lawmakers have not prioritized changing the law.
“I think it’s still happening because it’s an issue that is primarily impacting girls,” Reiss said. “And legislators are not known for prioritizing girls’ issues. It’s girls, not boys. They’re not even old enough to vote. And because most Americans are unaware of this, they’re not hearing from their own constituents saying, ‘What the hell? You need to change this.’”
In Washington, said Katherine Cleland, volunteer for Zonta International and U.S. representative to the National Coalition to End Child Marriage, most legislators aren’t aware it’s an issue, either.
“The issue had not been brought to their attention, and they’re surprised and appalled when they hear about it,” Cleland said. “And then it’s a question of where it is on the political priority list.”
As an advocate for the rights of young people, Pillar said she would “be concerned about taking that ability to have some self-determination away.”
“But at the same time, we also know as advocates for young people that they’re coerced by their parents and the adults in their lives to do all kinds of things that aren’t really their stated interest, or even necessarily their best interest,” Pillar said.
Law and Justice Committee Chair Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said she had to evaluate which of the 65 bills sent to her committee after passage in the House needed to pass this year and what could wait. The legislative session ends April 23, and lawmakers will convene again in early 2024.
“I look forward to giving it a hearing next session,” Dhingra said.