The push to ban underage marriage in Minnesota deserves not only serious consideration but passage into law.
Child marriage, thankfully, is nowhere near as common in the U.S. as it once was. But it remains an issue because 16- and 17-year-olds still can and do wed in Minnesota with parental consent and approval of a judge. That may have been less rare in the past, but times have changed. We know more about what underage marriage does to minors, who sometimes are pressured or persuaded to enter a legal contract before they are ready.
Civil marriage is, after all, a legal and binding contract with lifelong consequences. It’s not unreasonable that those who enter it should be of legal age. Consider this: A 16-year-old who marries and a year later finds she is miserable cannot file for divorce on her own. Unlike marriage, only legal adults can file for divorce.
Minnesota Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, has been leading this effort since last year, when she got a bill passed unanimously in the House. Her has told her own story, of an older man who sought permission from her father to marry while she was still in high school. Her father refused and Her graduated and went on to college, getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees before winning her legislative seat. She’s also a policy director for the city of St. Paul.
“Not only does child marriage cut childhoods short,” Her has said in advocating for her bill, “it puts minors at higher risk of abuse, poverty and lifelong physical and mental health challenges.”
The Tahirih Justice Center, which has conducted extensive research on child marriage, backs this up. Tahirih notes that close to 80% of underage marriages end in divorce. Half of minor girls end up dropping out of high school, further limiting their opportunities in life. They are more prone to sexual violence and psychological problems.
UNICEF, which has been fighting against child marriage internationally, holds that marriage before the age of 18 “is a fundamental violation of human rights.” We should be willing to adopt for ourselves the standard we recommend for other nations.
In a recent demonstration at the Capitol, Eden Prairie High School student Claire Willet put it aptly: “If children who are 16 or 17 are barred from using alcohol, getting tattoos or even voting, why should they be able to enter into a lifetime contract of marriage?”
This time around, the effort is aided by an enlightened push from state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who leads the judiciary committee. Limmer says he has come around in his thinking since last year, when he declined to hear the bill.
“It’s almost like buying a bride, and that should never happen in this state,” he said. “After considering and weighing the legal principles against the intention of the bill, I’m becoming sold on the idea that it’s the proper thing to do.”