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Virginia becomes first Southern state to abolish child marriage

When she was 16, Sara Tasneem said she had been forced to marry her rapist while she was six months pregnant.

“My abuser was 13 years older than me and he was able to marry me and continue abusing me for the following seven years under the protection of a marriage certificate,” Tasneem said.

Tasneem said she faced legal barriers when trying to leave the marriage. As a minor, she couldn’t escape to a domestic violence shelter, hire an attorney or sign a lease.

“I couldn’t even drive because I wasn’t old enough and he controlled my entire life,” said Tasneem, who now speaks out on the issue of child marriage across the nation.

She was one of several abuse victims who shared personal testimonies with Virginia lawmakers last month before the General Assembly ultimately voted to end the practice in the commonwealth. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill, filed by Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra (D-Fairfax County), into law this month.

When the law takes effect in July, Virginia will be the first Southern state to abolish child marriage for all minors, making 18 the legal age to do so. Virginia joins nearly a dozen other U.S. states with similar laws on the books prohibiting minors from getting married.

The new law closes a legal loophole that allowed minors the ability to be declared emancipated in order to marry, meaning they’re no longer bound to the legal authority of a parent or guardian and are legally recognized as adults. In 2016, Virginia raised the minimum age to marry to 16 if the minor was emancipated or received permission from a judge.

Activist groups such as Unchained At Last and Virginia National Organization for Women praise the legislation for ending what they called a human rights abuse and human trafficking horror that often occurs under the guise of a legal marriage certificate.

Though it passed almost unanimously in the Senate, the House approved the bill in a divided vote. After Senate amendments were made to the bill, the House adopted the bill in a 57-40 vote. Hampton Roads Republican Dels. Jay Leftwich, A.C. Cordoza and Barry Knight all voted against the bill in the House. Del. Jackie Glass, a Democrat, was recorded as voting in support of the bill but intended to vote “nay.” None responded to requests for comment this week from The Virginian-Pilot about why they voted against the legislation.

Josh Hetzler, legislative counsel for The Family Foundation, told lawmakers in a House subcommittee hearing in March that he opposed the bill because the 2016 legislation was a “very reasonable compromise” intended to address the concerns of abuse and exploitation associated with child marriage while also recognizing one’s right to marry. He said emancipated minors have legal access that other minors don’t have and that they should be able to decide if they want to marry if they’re legally deemed an adult.

“If someone is deemed to be a legal adult and otherwise has all the rights of an adult, then of course they should have the right to marry as well,” Hetzler said. “We talk about marriage being a fundamental right but now we want to deny that to legal adults.”

Tammy Miller Jennings spoke in support of the bill on behalf of Virginia National Organization for Women, stating that she married at the age of 17 and divorced by the age of 21. Though she didn’t face the abuse cited by activists on behalf of victims, Jennings said knowing what she knows now, the risks of marrying as a child today are too high.

Supporters of the bill said the practice of child marriage often leads to human trafficking and that data show girls by and large marry adult men, making them particularly more susceptible to abuse and poverty. Unchained At Last is an advocacy group that was involved in the legislative process for the new law. The organization’s research shows between 2000 and 2021, nearly 8,000 minors got married in Virginia, with more than 80% of the marriages occurring between girls and adult men.

“Almost all of the marriages since 2000 involved a minor who was not even old enough to consent to sex with their spouse,” Unchained At Last stated in a news release about Virginia’s new law.

Casey Swegman, director of public policy at the Tahirih Justice Center, said girls under 18 who marry are extremely vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence and at a higher risk of dropping out of school. The center is a national nonprofit focused on immigrant survivors fleeing gender-based violence.

“Girls who marry before 19 are 50% more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to go to college,” Swegman said. “Having minors wait until they’re at least 18 to marry sets them up to be better off as people, as partners and as parents.”

Natalie Anderson, 757-732-1133,

Source: Orange County Register

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