Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Ending Child Marriages

By Rick Outzen

Florida has the second highest rate of child marriages. Of the 16,400 cases of early marriage reported in Florida over the last 15 years, 80 percent of them were minor girls marrying adult men.

In Florida, children who are 16 or 17-years-old are allowed to marry with the consent of both sets of parents or if the minor has been married previously. No minimum age for marriage exists under the law if a girl is pregnant and has judicial approval.

Florida House Bill 335, co-sponsored by Rep. Frank White (R-Pensacola) and Jeanette Núñez (R-Miami), prohibits a county court judge or clerk of the circuit court from issuing a marriage license to any person under the age of 18. The House Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee passed the bill last week, 13-1, and now it is before the Judiciary Committee.

Florida Politics reported that at the committee hearing Nuñez said she was inspired her to fight for this effort because of the case, reported by the New York Times, of Sherry Johnson, age 11, who was raped, became pregnant and then the following year was forced to marry her rapist.

“Florida is estimated to be number two for child marriages in the country,” Nuñez said. “That is unacceptable.”

Tahirih Justice Center is leading the effort to prevent child marriage in the U.S. Last week, Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for Policy and Strategy for Tahirih Justice Center, was in Pensacola for a retreat. She took a few minutes to speak with Inweekly.

“The organization that I have worked at for 15 years is a national legal service and advocacy organization that works to protect women and girls from many different forms of violence—domestic violence, rape, human trafficking and forced marriage,” Smoot said.

“It’s through our work on over 500 cases around the country of women and girls who were forced into marriages against their will, that we began to appreciate—on kind of at the gut-wrenching level—exactly how many legal and practical obstacles are posed to a girl who’s facing a marriage that she doesn’t want.”

Shelters can be one of those obstacles.

“Florida shelters have to notify parents, and they can only house runaways temporarily, so if parents are forcing the marriage, then the shelter doesn’t offer any safety or security at all,” she told Inweekly.

Child Protective Services (CPS) organizations aren’t always helpful. Smoot said, “In our experience, even when we directly call CPS, we get a variety responses, some dismissive just as if it were a family matter. Or this is a cultural matter, a religious matter. In any event, it’s not their business.”

She pointed out that the “private family matter” argument has been used for nearly 30 years to perpetuate domestic violence in households.

“We know that position continues to perpetuate the conditions that create the violence in the first place, and so we just don’t see the right response from other kinds of systems that are supposed to protect children from harm,” said Smoot.

Florida’s child marriage law is more liberal than Alabama’s or Georgia’s. Making counties like Escambia County a prime location for Alabama men wanting to have child brides.

“Georgia and Alabama have floors of age 16,” said Smoot. “No one can get married under those ages in either of those two states, and a probate judge is involved in the decision for both states for 16 and 17-year-olds. You can imagine that Florida then becomes kind of a magnet if, in fact, you are seeking to evade your home state’s laws.”

She added, “You don’t even have to be a Florida resident, so I think you can appreciate how much that opens up the possibility of spiriting some girl across state lines, of taking someone away from perhaps a network of friends, or teachers, counselors, people who might be able to help her and taking her to another state to be married where the questions asked may be only related to pregnancy or about parental consent—but if it’s evidenced only on a form who’s to say that that’s actually legit.”

Smoot said that child marriages aren’t good public policy either. The divorce rates are up to 80 percent. The school dropout rates are high.

“A girl who marries before the age of 19 is 50 percent less likely to complete high school, 4 times less likely to go on to college,” said Smoot. “She’s much more likely to live in poverty when she’s older. Much more likely to have more children at younger ages and more closely spaced. She’s got more medical and mental health problems.”

She continued, “These are not studies based halfway around the world. These are U.S. studies, and this data is coming to the fore in the last three years.”

For the Tahirih Justice Center, these statistics drive home to people that child marriages, for any reason, don’t make sense.

Smoot said “Whether it’s someone who is being forced or whether it’s someone who believes it’s their choice at the time, delaying marriage until 18 or older can only benefit the minor. We can only have better assurance that that’s their choice and they will have that kind of means to protect themselves from abuse if that’s what they’re facing.”

She is optimistic about the passage of HB 335 and its companion SB 140. She said, “Just since introduction, the bills in the House and Senate have gained more cosponsors, greater bipartisanship.”

She believes a widespread consensus for the bill will continue to build once people open their eyes to the nature of the problem and the way that the current laws make it easy to have some pretty disturbing cases happen and by entirely legal means.

Smoot said, “Florida is going to set a high bar for the rest of the country to follow and be a leader in this national campaign to end child marriage across the U.S.”

For more information, visit tahirih.org and girlsnotbrides.org.