My Turn: Disturbing matrimony in New Hampshire

  • Thirty-two-year-old mountaineer Homer Peel kisses his bride, Geneva, on the courthouse steps at Madisonville, Tenn., on June 25, 1937, after he was told by the court that he could keep his 12-year-old wife. AP file

For the Monitor
Thursday, January 11, 2018

New Hampshire’s laws about marriage have evolved rapidly during the last decade. The Legislature approved civil unions in 2007, the first state legislature to do so without litigation. Two years later, New Hampshire became just the sixth state to embrace same-sex marriage. We were on the right side of history on this issue, and we should be proud of that.

By contrast, New Hampshire’s laws about marriage have not kept pace with changing attitudes about child marriage. With parental permission and a court order, New Hampshire girls can marry at age 13 and New Hampshire boys can marry at age 14. There are no restrictions related to age differences, which means that children can marry much older adults. Just as troubling, marriage can excuse sexual conduct that would otherwise amount to statutory rape. For example, it’s not illegal for a 13-year-old girl to have sex with her 20-year-old husband.

As the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation recently reported in our Gender Matters series, nearly 200 children under age 18 have been married in New Hampshire since 2000. In a likely unconstitutional twist, both males and females must be 18 to enter into same-sex marriages, presumably a lingering vestige of discrimination against same-sex relationships.

New Hampshire grabbed national headlines last year when the House of Representatives indefinitely postponed a bill which, with a proposed amendment, would have barred marriage by people younger than 18 altogether. By indefinitely postponing the legislation, the House basically killed it – “substantially similar” legislation can’t come back during this year’s legislative session without the approval of the House Rules Committee or a two-thirds vote in the full House.

That hasn’t stopped legislators from filing several new bills related to child marriage. Some seek to chip away at the universe of permissible child marriages without bumping up against the “substantially similar” threshold. One bill would raise the minimum marriage age to 16 for both boys and girls. Another would prohibit judges from authorizing marriages in which sex between the parties would be statutory rape. Other legislation seeks to maintain the status quo in certain situations. One bill would reaffirm the legality of marriage by girls as young as 13 if they’re pregnant.

Child marriage is linked to a number of harmful effects for girls. As we also reported in Gender Matters, the number of child marriages has declined sharply over the last two decades. This likely reflects both changing cultural attitudes as well as a general trend toward marriage later in life. Nevertheless, setting the appropriate limits on child marriage continues to be a highly controversial topic.

Virtually everyone would agree that the marriage of a 13-year-old girl is unconscionable, that having different minimum marriage ages for girls, boys and same-sex couples is pernicious, and that New Hampshire’s marriage laws are badly in need of an update. But where should we draw the lines? Should we adopt a rule that forbids marriage to all 15-year-olds, but allows it to all 16-year-olds? Should we require enhanced judicial process to evaluate the maturity and best interests of the child seeking to marry and to ferret out the evils of coercion, sexual assault and trafficking that play a role in many child marriages? Should we follow Virginia’s lead and permit marriage under age 18 only to court-emancipated minors who have the legal rights of adults? Any solution to the thorny question of child marriage must meaningfully enhance girls’ safety, health, and economic security while simultaneously recognizing that empowering girls sometimes means respecting their right to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives.

Here at the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, we’re ready to tackle this tough conversation. We’ll be watching this year’s child marriage bills closely and bringing stakeholders together in search of legislation that puts girls and women first. We’ll be sharing data and information about child marriage and its effects. And we’ll be listening to anyone who has something to say. Once again, New Hampshire has the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of 21st-century marriage legislation. Let’s make sure we get it right.

(Sarah Mattson Dustin is the director of policy at the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation.)