Barrington teen returns to Legislature to raise N.H. marriage age to 16 

  • Cassandra Levesque, 18, sits at the Legislative Office Building in Concord following a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, during which she spoke in favor of a set of bills related to the age of marriage in New Hampshire. Levesque has continued to fight to raise New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age after her bill to change it from 13 or 14 to 18 years old was rejected last year. She has returned in 2018 to champion a new effort, this time raising the age to 16. Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/16/2018 6:29:25 PM

The issue of child marriage is a personal one for 18-year-old Cassandra Levesque.

Not just because of what happened last year, when the then-senior at Dover High School watched state legislators kill a bill she had pioneered for a Girl Scouts project, which would have raised New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age – currently 13 for girls and 14 for boys – to 18 years old.

The issue hit home for Levesque when she realized, while researching her own family, that both her grandmother and great-grandmother had been married under the age of 18. Levesque’s great-grandmother was 16 when she married her then-49-year-old husband.

It was a story Levesque told Tuesday during a hearing for a new set of bills related to the age of marriage in New Hampshire.

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. Last year, Levesque testified in favor of the bill to raise the marriage age, and watched as legislators tore it apart and rejected it on the House floor.

Representatives also voted to indefinitely postpone action on the bill, effectively barring the legislation from being taken up again this year.

So Levesque, with the help Rep. Jackie Cilley, D-Barringon, returned in 2018, this time to change the age of marriage to 16 years old, matching the age of consent in New Hampshire.

Like many women who marry young, both Levesque’s grandmother and great-grandmother entered into their child marriages to escape abuse at home, Levesque said.

“She thought the only way to get out of the situation was to marry,” Levesque said of her grandmother, who said she had been abused by the uncle who raised her. “She later told me she made the wrong choice.”

Both Levesque’s grandmother and great-grandmother were abused again in their marriages, had children early and didn’t graduate from high school.

“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.”

Levesque’s original bill to raise the marriage age to 18 failed as legislators said its repeal 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.

Cilley said Tuesday that the age of 16 should be “the rock-bottom threshold” for marriage in the state.

Adults who have sex with an individual under the age of 16 consensually can be charged with statutory rape – a felony that could mean seven years in prison for that adult. But if a couple is married, those rules don’t apply.

If passed, the proposed legislation would change that.

Cases of child marriage in the state are relatively few. Between 1995 and 2012, 323 girls and 46 boys under age 18 have been married, according to the state’s vital statistics. The number of married minors has declined steadily since 1995, a year when 47 teens were wed.

It’s more common for 16- and 17-year-olds to be married in the state than 14- and 15-year-olds. Since 1995, 14 girls under age 16 were married; no boys under 16 were married during the same time.

Cilley said she hopes that after legislation to raise the marriage age to 16 is passed, a bill to raise the age to 18 can be revisited.

“There’s a laundry list that goes on for miles of things you can’t do (before 18),” Cilley said. “You can’t vote, join the military, rent a car – and yet we say its acceptable before that age to take on a marriage contract?”

“I think 18 is the age we should be looking at to make this consistent with other contractual agreements,” she added.

House Children and Family Law Committee Chairwoman Kimberly Rice said a subcommittee would likely be created to further review the new bills. She commended Levesque for her continued efforts on the issue.

“I love your dedication and commitment to seeing this go,” Rice said.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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