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Women’s Law Center pushes back on underage marriage ban

Michelle Daughtery Siri (File)

‘We definitely support the goal of eradicating forced marriages,’ Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center, told a House of Delegates committee. said. ‘Child marriage is the red herring here and it’s forced marriages that are really the problem.’ (File)

Legislation to prohibit marriage for anyone younger than 18 drew criticism from women’s rights advocates at a hearing in the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

House Bill 799, introduced by Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, would do away with current provisions that allow a 16- or 17-year-old to get married with parental permission or proof of pregnancy. A 15-year-old can get married with both.

Almost every member of the House Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill Thursday afternoon, co-sponsored the bill and a cross-file in the Senate also has support.

“Our current age of marriage is antiquated and outdated,” Atterbeary told the committee.

Atterbeary sponsored similar legislation last year, which passed the House of Delegates but did not get out of a Senate committee.

More than 3,200 minors were married in the state between 2000 and 2015; of those, 85 percent were young women marrying adult men, according to Atterbeary.

“We say that the legal age is 18 and that’s what it should be for marriage as well,” she said.

But Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, told the committee the bill, which seeks to prevent young people, particularly women, from being forced into unwanted marriages, comes at the expense of respecting their autonomy.

“We definitely support the goal of eradicating forced marriages,” Siri said. “Child marriage is the red herring here and it’s forced marriages that are really the problem.”

Maryland’s lack of a statutory framework for emancipation further complicates the issue, Siri said, because there are no safeguards in place for minors who want to marry under certain circumstances.

“We can’t mandate maturity,” she said.

But Jeanne L. Smoot, senior council for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said the bill would only delay, not deny, the right to marry for “genuine couples” while providing a reprieve for young people who feel they have no choice.

“At present, Maryland has no effective safeguards to protect children from potentially lifelong harm,” she said, citing to studies that found women who married in their teens faced more instability and mental and physical health problems.

Maryland is one of several states introducing bills to make 18 the minimum marriage age with no statutory exceptions, according to Smoot, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

“Maryland’s current laws have turned a blind eye to all these child protection concerns for far too long,” she said.

Siri countered there are alternatives to solve the issue of forced marriages without a blanket ban, such as outreach and education as well as creating an emancipation statute.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, is the lead sponsor of the cross-filed Senate Bill 861, which is scheduled for a committee hearing March 9.

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