In Pennsylvania, there is currently no minimum age to get married. A child of any age can get married if they meet certain requirements. For those under the age of 18, a custodial parent or guardian’s consent is all that is needed to marry. For anyone under the age of 16, permission to marry requires parental consent and for a judge to agree that it is in the applicant’s best interest. A new bill, House Bill 360/Senate Bill 81, would change this law. If it is approved and is signed into law, the minimum age to marry in Pennsylvania would be 18 — with no exceptions.
Child marriage may not seem like a pressing issue. Yet according to Unchained at Last, a national organization dedicated to ending child marriage, approximately 250,000 girls under the age of 18 were coerced into marriage between 2000 and 2010. 85.01% of the children wed were girls. The 2014 U.S. Census found that an estimated 2,323 children in Pennsylvania aged 15 to 17 had already been married. In most cases (77%), these minors are marrying adult men, raising questions of force, coercion and sexual assault.
The U.S. Department of State has declared child marriage to be a human rights abuse that results in “devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood.” For girls who marry before they turn 18, the statistics are grim. Child marriage is associated with an increased maternal mortality rate, along with a higher incidence of sexually transmitted infections. This is likely due to young women and girls’ decreased ability to negotiate access to safe sex, birth control and medical care.
The possibility of domestic violence is also greater in child marriages, which may be related to the significant power imbalance that already exists in the relationship. Women who married before the age of 18 are three times more likely to have been physically abused by their spouses than women who married at age 21 or older. If these same girls and young women attempt to leave their spouses, they may find themselves in an impossible situation: although they are legally married, they cannot file for divorce, retain an attorney or take other actions to protect themselves should they want to leave their spouse.
Child marriage also impacts a young woman or girl’s education and opportunities. Women who marry as teenagers are often unable to access education, and are 50% more likely to drop out of high school as compared to their unmarried peers. This can also impact a young girl’s future and ability to leave a marriage.
In Pennsylvania, we have a chance to make a change, and to protect children across the state from being married to adults and facing these and other harms. At Blackburn Center, we believe that all Pennsylvanians should support the bill to end child marriage in our state. We ask you to contact your legislators today and request that they support HB 360/SB 81 to end child marriage.