A month after an official bill signing, Gov. John Carney hosted a ceremonial signing Thursday to recognize activists and lawmakers who pushed for Delaware to become the first state to outlaw child marriage.
While the legal marriage age is 18 in every state, most allow exceptions — such as parental or judicial consent or in cases of pregnancy. Delaware is the only state to ban it completely.
“To me, this issue was a no-brainer,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport.
“Children under 18 have no legal standing, they cannot file for divorce, utilize a domestic violence shelter, apply for a loan or credit card,” Williams said. “Before this bill was signed, the only legal contract children were allowed to enter was marriage.”
Child marriages in Delaware have steadily declined. In the past decade, only a handful have occurred a year.
But activist Fraidy Reiss of Unchained At Last said the legislation significantly advances human rights.
“We see across the United States the rate of child marriages have been decreasing. But they’re not going to disappear until we legislate that away,” she said. “This is still a problem.”
“Every single child who is married is suffering what the U.S. State Department considers a human rights abuse. So the only way to eliminate this is not to just sit around and wait and hope the numbers go down to zero. The way we do that is to pass simple common-sense legislation that ends this human rights abuse that right now is destroying girls’ lives.”
Reiss was inspired to found her organization because of her own experience. She said she grew up in an insular religious community in Brooklyn where forced and child marriages are common. Reiss said the stranger she married became violent. When she was finally able to escape 12 years later, her family shunned her.
She and her colleagues have been encouraging legislators across the country to pass similar measures to Delaware’s. New Jersey recently passed a child marriage ban, which is waiting for the signature of Gov. Phil Murphy. Last year, then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure.
On Thursday, Reiss and other advocates from her organization showed off new tattoos depicting broken chains to signify Delaware’s new law.
“I think other states have been resistant out of a combination of lack of understanding of the issue, not understanding child marriage is very different from adult marriage,” she said.
“I think part of it comes down to sexism. A lot of legislators saying, ‘Well, a girl gets pregnant, she has no choice, she has to marry, even if she was raped.’
“Never mind that studies show a pregnant teenage girl that stays single has better long-term outcomes, and pregnant teenage girls who marry are more likely to suffer economic deprivation and instability.”
Carney, Williams and Reiss were joined by several other sponsors of the bill, which passed 23-11 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
“The other thing this does, which was a really moving aspect for me, was close what I view as an unacceptable loophole in our criminal law, whereby a person could marry a minor aged 16 or 17 and thus create an exception to what otherwise would be considered statutory rape,” said state Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Elsmere. “So we ended what is an awful and unacceptable practices, and I’m so proud to stand in this room.”