A new attempt to end child marriage in New Hampshire

  • Cassandra Levesque following a hearing where she spoke in favor of a set of bills related to the age of marriage in 2018. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 2/15/2021 3:44:21 PM

Dawn Tyree was a child back in 1985 when she married the man who impregnated her.

A couple years later, after years of physical and sexual abuse, she decided to leave her husband at just 17.

As Tyree made her way into the world as a child herself with two children, she felt stuck. Because she was under 18, she couldn’t enroll back in school or rent a hotel room to escape her ex-husband. Tyree was turned away from shelters and social services because of her age.

For years, Tyree lived with her children below the poverty line — sometimes without toilet paper, shampoo, or electricity — for about a decade.

“There is no equality in a child marriage,” she said “How was I to go back to school, work or even think about college?”

A new bill proposed earlier this month, sponsored by state Rep. Cassie Levesque, seeks to prevent situations like Tyree’s by raising the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18.

Levesque said young brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready for marriage. Women who marry young are more likely to face pregnancy complications and experience domestic violence, she said.

“There is a significant difference between a 16 or 17-year old — even one who is exceptionally mature — and an 18 year old,” she said. “To enter into any contract you have the legal capacity to give consent.”

Rep. Chuck Grassie, who spoke in support of the bill said the consequences of child marriage can permeate through generations. He said the U.S State Department has designated child marriage as a human rights issue.

“The parents aren’t consenting to a marriage, they could wait until 18 if they were doing that, what they’re doing is they’re basically removing their daughter from their family,” he said.

Giovana Ortiz-Barrera, a representative of UNICEF USA, said between 2000 and 2017, 202 children in New Hampshire were married as young as 14. She said child marriage often leads to separation from family and friends, a lack of freedom to interact with peers and fewer educational opportunities.

Currently, children who are 16 or 17 can be legally married in New Hampshire with parental consent. The legal age used to be 13 years old before the Legislature raised the age to 16 after several years of lobbying by Levesque. 

Aliya Abbas, an activist and survivor of child marriage, said New Hampshire’s young marriage ages are problematic, as parental consent typically means parent coercion, as it did in her experience.

Abbas said she is still working through the trauma inflicted during her marriage.

When she was 17, she was taken out of high school, flown to a foreign country, and forced by her parents to marry a 25-year-old man. She became a teenage mother against her will and struggled to hold on to ownership of her body.

“I fought back,” she said. “The consequence was more beatings, more torture, more rape, more mental abuse.”

Still, Abbas like many women who spoke in favor of HB 60, insisted she was one of the lucky women. Most child brides don’t get the opportunity to leave their spouse, she said.

“They experience a lifetime of abuse,” she said. “We need to step up and protect our girls.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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