Debate over exceptions keeps child marriage ban from advancing

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Discussion about whether some circumstances should be exempted from a proposed ban on underage marriage in Michigan is holding up a set of bills in Lansing.

The bills were created in response to a Target 8 investigation that exposed girls as young as 14 were marrying adult men in Michigan because the state has no minimum age for marriages.

The package of measures was introduced earlier this year — the third time they have been put forth to the state Legislature since 2018. So far, there has been no movement.

That’s because some legislators who want exemptions that would allow military members to marry minors and permitting emancipated minors be married.

“I am concerned about these young people,” said Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, who is sponsoring the legislation. 

She argued chipping away at the breadth of the bills removes intended and necessary protections.

“The stories are heartbreaking, the issue is pertinent and every day that we don’t address this issue is another day that we are leaving kids vulnerable and neglected,” Anthony said. “We as Michiganders can do so much better.”

According to state records, more than 5,000 children, some as young as 14, were married in Michigan between 2000 and 2018. The majority were girls marrying adult men. Target 8 featured one former child bride who shared stories of being physically and mentally abused. She had no way out because she was fully dependent on her adult husband. Target 8 learned that story is common in child brides.

“There are a lot of perks that we give to service members — as we should, because the service that they give to our country in the sacrifices that they make. One of them should not be the right to take a child bride,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, an advocacy group working to end child marriage in the United States.

She called the proposed exemptions are dangerous.

“We at Unchained At Last have worked with survivors who were forcefully married as minors to service members, and we cannot think of any reason that a girl who is being forced to marry a service member should get any less protection than a girl being forced to marry a civilian,” Reiss said.

Anthony said she cannot think of one reason why child marriage would be needed. 

“I really, really can’t,” she said. “There are some discussions around emancipated children, but I believe those should be few and far between, because when you hear these stories of these children who now in their adulthood are saying the abuse, the neglect, the fact that they weren’t able to graduate from high school, free themselves from adults.”

There are also concerns that an emancipation exemption will be used as a loophole.

For anyone who is marrying for love, Reiss and Anthony agree there is no harm is waiting until both parties are 18.

“When folks hear that child marriage is still legal in the state of Michigan, it still boggles the mind,” Anthony said. “So we have a way to go, but I am encouraged that we have some momentum in the Legislature right now.

The next step is to get the bills a committee hearing; a date for that has yet to be set. If you were a child bride and want to testify, contact information for Anthony can be found on her webpage.

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