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Barrington teen ‘proud’ as bill to raise minimum marriage age expected to become law

  • Cassandra Levesque, 18, sits for a photo at the Legislative Office Building in Concord following a hearing where she spoke in favor of a set of bills related to the minimum marriage age in New Hampshire on Jan. 16. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Jackie Cilley and Cassandra Levesque of Barrington at the State House on Tuesday. Paul Steinhauser



Monitor staff
Friday, May 04, 2018

Casandra Levesque couldn’t believe it at first.

After months of research, testifying and traveling to the State House to promote legislation to prevent child marriage in New Hampshire, Levesque watched the state Senate vote to raise the minimum marriage age to 16 Wednesday in one swift motion of unanimous consent.

“I was in the Senate gallery thinking, ‘Did that just happen?’ ” said Levesque, 18, of Barrington. “I was so excited and overwhelmed.”

The vote was quite a turn from last year, when Levesque watched helplessly from the House gallery as legislators tore apart the first bill she pioneered as part of a girl scout project that would have raised the marriage age to 18.

Under current state law, 13-year-old girls and 14 year-old boys can enter into marriage with parental permission and a judge’s approval.

But legislators came to an agreement on Wednesday, approving three bills that effectively raise the marriage age to 16 and prohibit judicial approval of marriage if it would otherwise be sexual assault.

Levesque’s original bill to raise the marriage age to 18 failed last year as legislators said it would increase the number of children born out of wedlock, or that it would prevent young soldiers from sharing military benefits with a teenage spouse.

This year’s effort is likely to become law as Gov. Chris Sununu has urged the Legislature to get the bill to his desk.

“Virtually everyone agrees that the marriage of a 13-year-old child is unconscionable,” Sununu said in March after the House passed it.

Levesque’s state representative, Jackie Cilley D-Barrington, who sponsored the bills, said she and Levesque came into this year’s legislative session better prepared to answer legislators’ concerns about the bill.

“What it pointed out for me is even when you think something should be simple and common sense, prepare as though you’re going to have a world of opposition,” she said.

Levesque said she plans to go back to legislators one more time to try to raise the age to 18. But for now, she’s celebrating a long- awaited victory.

“I was very proud of the fact that I changed something that has been going on for so long and nobody knew until I spoke up,” she said.

Vital statistics data show that the total number of child marriages per year is relatively sparse, and has been steadily declining over time. In 1989, New Hampshire judges allowed 115 child marriages. Since 2001, there have been 20 or fewer performed each year.

In 2017, five child marriages were allowed in the state, and one was rejected by a judge, according to the state court system.

Court data shows that most of those who file for a marriage waiver are at least 16 years old. Only two petitioners out of 67 in the state during the last five years were under 16.

When researching her own family, Levesque discovered that both her grandmother and great-grandmother had been married under the age of 18. Like many women who marry young, both her grandmother and great-grandmother entered into their child marriages to escape abuse at home, Levesque said.

But both were abused again in their marriages, had children early and didn’t graduate from high school, Levesque told legislators at a hearing in January.

“If someone had stepped in and prevented the marriages, what a different life (they) would have had,” she said of her relatives. “Hearing these stories made me angry and sad, but more determined to fight for this to stop.”