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Connecticut moves to ban child marriages

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(The Center Square) — Connecticut could become the latest state to outlaw child marriage, a practice that child welfare advocates say usually involves coercing vulnerable youths into unwanted unions.

A proposal unanimously approved by the state Senate on Friday would 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. The bill was approved on a 98-45 bipartisan vote last month in the House of Representatives. Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to sign it.

Under current Connecticut laws, 16 or 17 year-olds may get a marriage license if their local probate court judge approves a petition filed on the minor’s behalf by their parent or guardian. The law also allows emancipated minors to marry at 16 or 17, which would be banned under the proposal.

Supporters of the changes said the practice of allowing adults to wed children has far-reaching mental and physical implications. They packed legislative hearings on the proposal, some wearing wedding gowns and chains on their wrists, to tell their stories and decry how state law fails to protect vulnerable youths who might be pressured or forced into unions.

“Their lives have been affected by sexual abuse and violence – it’s simply unconscionable that Connecticut would still have a law in place to put people into these types of binding contracts of marriage with no way out,” state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in remarks. “I’m deeply grateful to those people for making their voices heard and for helping us right those wrongs.”

At least 1,251 children as young as 14 were married in Connecticut between 2000 and 2021, according to the state Department of Public Health. Most were girls married to men.

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 2030.

Currently, about 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.

To date, only eight states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have passed legislation approving the 18-year-old marriage requirement.

The practice is more common in southern states, according to the Pew Research Center. California and Nevada have high numbers of child marriages as well.

Those who have opposed legislation in other states that would forbid minors from marrying cite religious tradition and parental rights among their reasons.

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