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Virginia lawmakers have voted to raise the marriage age to 18. Most states haven't

Brigitte Combs wipes away tears after speaking to Virginia lawmakers in favor of a bill to raise the minimum age of marriage. She was married at 15 years old to a much older man — later fleeing.
Shaban Athuman
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VPM
Brigitte Combs wipes away tears after speaking to Virginia lawmakers in favor of a bill to raise the minimum age of marriage. She was married at 15 years old to a much older man — later fleeing.

Brigitte Combs lives outside of Richmond and said she came to the Virginia state capitol when she heard legislators were discussing the issue of minors and forced marriage. Taking a deep breath, she told them that decades ago in Texas she had been married at 15 years old to a 37-year-old man.

"I could not speak up then. But I can speak now. And I will fight tooth and nail for others who are not able to speak," she said in late February.

Combs was able to escape her marriage at age 18 — temporarily leaving two children behind, initially facing homelessness and eventually getting a divorce.

"Through time, and getting to meet people, then I found out more about it. And found out yeah, this is actually still a thing," Combs told NPR. "It's happening in America. It wasn't just me."

Lawmakers went on to pass a bill raising the minimum age for marriage to 18. It's currently pending action by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. But advocates say it would make Virginia just the 12th state to prohibit minors from getting married, which they say often leads to abuse.

The group Unchained at Lastsays that between 2000 and 2018 nearly 300,000 minors under 18 were married in the US, the vast majority of whom are girls. It says about 60,000 of those marriages "occurred at an age or spousal age difference that should have been considered a sex crime." The organization, which offers legal aid and other services to people in forced marriages, is calling on Youngkin to sign the bill.

Naomi Cahn, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, said the movement to raise the marriage age has gained ground over the past decade. She attributed that to advocacy and shifting norms around pregnancy outside marriage, which is often the motivation for teen marriage.

"Sexual activity and – or at least pregnancy and marriage during the teen years – is in general going down as a social matter," she said. "This is very much a state by state issue. Each state has its own laws in this area."

Virginia Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra embraces Brigitte Combs after Combs spoke to lawmakers, who passed a bill raising the minimum age of marriage to 18. It's pending action by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Shaban Athuman / VPM
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VPM
Virginia Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra embraces Brigitte Combs after Combs spoke to lawmakers, who passed a bill raising the minimum age of marriage to 18. It's pending action by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Currently Virginia allows 16-year-olds to marry, like most of the US, but only if a judge signs off on it and emancipates the minor looking to get married. That age floor was established in 2016, which Cahn said was one of the early changes nationwide raising the marriage age. It was a compromise reached after a proposal to raise the age to 18 didn't gain enough support.

But Combs said that isn't enough of a safeguard.

"It didn't matter if I was 15 or 17. Because my parents would have done, or had me do, whatever was necessary to get me married," she told legislators. "With all due respect, does anyone here actually think a vulnerable young person in fear of their parents or even God himself is going to protest?"

Delaware was the first state to set the minimum age at 18, in 2018. Washington was the most recent after Gov. Jay Inselee signed legislation this year.

Other states are looking at raising the age. But a combination of objections has slowed the pace of change.

"Sometimes it is said that children are fleeing bad home lives with their parents, but then they're fleeing a bad home life for another bad home life," said Lisa Sales, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Sometimes they're in love. But if they're truly in love, then they can wait to get married to make sure that love will last and is enduring love."

Resistance comes from different ideological views too, said Casey Swegman with the Tahirih Justice Center, based in Falls Church, Va., which advocates on behalf of immigrant girls and for raising the minimum age to marry.

"There are some groups that view the right to marry as an individual liberty that minors already hold." Swegman said. "Emancipated minors are awarded many rights, but not all. They are not allowed to vote. They're not allowed to buy cigarettes. They're not allowed to drink. Age based restrictions still exist, even for emancipated minors. And so why shouldn't marriage be one of those?"

But for the most part opposition runs along the lines of those still concerned with the community stigma that comes with teen pregnancy.

In Virginia, a conservative faith-based organization, the Family Foundation argued that the current law has been working and marriage should be an option for those that have become pregnant.

Combs is strongly against any exemption from the proposed legislation — including pregnancy.

"One person is too many," she said, "I am one person. Did it not matter?"


Jahd Khalil covers the Virginia Legislature for VPM News.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jahd Khalil
Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.