Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law Thursday that closed a few loopholes allowing child marriage in the state. The new law prohibits marriage people under age 18 unless they are emancipated minors, and therefore legal adults. Since Texas only allows emancipation for minors aged 16 or 17, the state now sets a hard age threshold on marriage at age 16.
Previously, 16- and 17-year-olds could get married with the permission of just one parent, even if the other parent objected. If a judge approved, consenting parents could marry off children of any age. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, an anti–gender violence advocacy group that helped write the new Texas law, judges and law enforcement officials were not required to look into whether the minor being presented for marriage was a victim of abuse or coercion.
This law is a big deal for Texas, where the child-marriage rate is one of the highest in the nation. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, nearly seven of every 1,000 minors aged 15 to 17 were married in 2014, a rate second only to West Virginia’s. The national average is five per 1,000, and every other state in the country has a rate under six per 1,000. (Tahirih has also noted that the Pew report may underestimate rates, since it doesn’t count children under 15 or minors in the 15 to 17 age range who were married but have already divorced.) Between 2000 and 2014, almost 40,000 minors were married in Texas, Tahirih says, citing Texas Department of State Health Services statistics. Most of these minors were child and adolescent girls, some as young as 12 years old, marrying adult men.
Trevicia Williams was 14, a freshman at a high school in Houston, when her mother married her off to a 26-year-old in 1983. The man already had a criminal record; he’s now a registered sex offender. In April, Williams submitted written testimony in support of the bill Abbott signed this week, detailing the physical and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of a husband she’d met just a few months before her mother picked her up from school one day and told her she was getting married. She got pregnant at age 15, had a daughter, and filed for divorce after her husband got locked up. Williams’ mother never told her why she forced her daughter into wedlock.
Girls who marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school than their peers and four times less likely to finish college. They experience higher rates of psychiatric disorders and face rates of intimate-partner violence nearly three times higher than the U.S. average.
Yet most U.S. states still allow child marriage under certain circumstances. In March, the Republican majority in the New Hampshire legislature voted down a bill that would have raised the legal marriage age to 18. Currently, with parental and judicial consent, boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 13 can legally marry in the state. Republicans argued that banning child marriage would keep members of the military from getting benefits for their underage partners and disadvantage babies born to unmarried teen girls. In Virginia, until the state banned child marriage last year, a pregnant minor could legally marry the person who’d gotten her pregnant, encouraging rapists to avoid charges by convincing their victims’ parents to let them get married. Republicans in Virginia opposed the bill on the grounds that pregnant minors would be more likely to opt for abortions if they couldn’t marry a man.
Abbott is taking great pains to erode services and protections for women and children in his state—he recently called a special legislative session for the primary purpose of passing abortion insurance restrictions and anti-transgender bathroom legislation. On the day he signed the child marriage ban, he also signed a bill that will allow child welfare programs to refuse to place children with LGBTQ or non-Christian families on religious grounds. But, unlike his fellow Republicans in other states, Abbott did not argue that adults who get children pregnant should be allowed to marry them. On the issue of child marriage, on the superinflated curve by which we must grade today’s GOP, Abbott gets an A!