(WJAR) — It’s something many people may not realize was still legal: marriage for children under 18. Rhode Island allowed minors to marry with parental consent—at least until Monday, when Gov. Dan McKee signed a bill outlawing the practice.
"Today is a tremendous victory for women and girls,” said Fraidy Reiss, an advocate for ending child marriage who helped get the law passed.
Reiss said she was forced into marriage at the age of 19, and later founded a non-profit aimed at helping others in the same situation, Unchained at Last.
"We kept getting calls, more and more calls, from girls under age 18, who were in the same nightmare situation I had been in as an adult,” she said.
Data from Unchained at Last shows 32 children in Rhode Island were married between 2013 and 2019.
The group says 88% of those marriages were underage girls marrying adult men, and one girl was only 14 at the time of the marriage.
While children could previously be married with parental consent, they couldn’t legally file for divorce to escape an unhappy or unsafe situation.
"They're not even allowed to file for divorce. So we realized the only way to help somebody who's not yet 18 is to change the law and make it no longer possible to marry off children before they have the right even to file for divorce,” Reiss said.
Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, said she was moved to sponsor the bill in the House after hearing the stories of girls forced into marriage, often as a way for adults to cover up sexual abuse.
"If you think child marriage is not an issue in Rhode Island, you are sadly mistaken,” Casimiro said.
"Marriage with a child who's too young to consent to sex, that [was] legal in Rhode Island. Therefore, unfortunately, what child marriage does is cover up a statutory rape. In some cases, a forcible rape,” Reiss said.
What about two teenagers who want to marry each other, and both consent to the marriage? Reiss said data from her organization shows that’s the exception, but such a couple can still get married—as soon as both people have turned 18.
"I ask, what harm comes from waiting a matter of months to marry?" she said.
Rhode Island becomes only the fifth state to outlaw child marriage, meaning it’s still legal in 45 states.
Reiss said New York state has passed a similar bill and legislators there are now waiting for the governor to sign it into law.