BOSTON — Massachusetts could become the latest state to outlaw child marriage, a practice that child welfare advocates say usually involves coercing vulnerable youths into unwanted unions.
On Thursday, the state Senate is expected to vote to set a minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions, and require clerks or magistrates to get proof of age from people seeking marriage licenses.
Violators would face fines up to $1,000 and a year in prison.
One of the bill's primary sponsors, Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said the practice of allowing adults to wed children has far-reaching mental and physical implications.
"Girls suffer negative economic, education and health consequences from child marriage, which also has heightened divorce and domestic violence outcomes," Lovely said.
If the Senate approves the bill, as expected, it would still have to pass the House of Representatives and get the signature of Gov. Charlie Baker.
At least 1,190 children as young as 14 were married in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2014, according to the state Department of Public Health. Most were girls married to adult men.
Advocates say child marriage often involves coercion, even where parental consent is granted, with a girl forced to marry against her will.
Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained at Last, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that seeks to end child marriage and helped write the legislation, said parents of the underage girls are typically involved in the coercion.
"Having the parents involved in no way protects a child from a forced marriage,” she said.
Reiss said marrying before the age of adulthood puts minors in a state of legal limbo because they don't have spousal rights or privileges. She said the state requirement that a judge sign off on a child marriage does little to protect underage brides.
"In any other court proceeding, the judge is required to consider the best interests of the child, but not when it comes to child marriage," she said. "In fact, even if a child is too young to consent to sex, a judge is allowed to approve the marriage, which basically sends that child home to be raped."
Those who’ve opposed similar legislation in other states cite religious tradition and parental rights as reasons.
Nationwide more than 200,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2015, according to advocates who say the actual figure is likely higher. The United Nations, which equates the practice with human trafficking, has set a goal of eliminating child marriage worldwide by the year 2030.
Currently two-dozen other states set the minimum age for marriage at 16 or 17, with exceptions made in cases of emancipated minors, parental consent or a judge’s approval, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Another 18 states do not set any absolute minimum, and seven states allow for a pregnancy to lower the minimum age.
Two states, Delaware and New Jersey, banned the practice last year.
"States are finally stepping up to stop child marriage and protect children’s rights," said Nesha Abiraj, women’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch, one of 40 organizations that are backing the proposal. "Massachusetts should join the vanguard of these reforms and pass this law for all the children at risk of child marriage."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.