Former Missouri child brides call for outlawing marriages of minors

Mar 13, 2024, 2:34 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Adult women who left marriages they entered as children on Wednesday called on Missouri lawmakers to outlaw child marriage, a practice currently legal in most states.

Missouri lawmakers in 2018 prohibited marriages of children 15 and younger, only allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental permission. Most states have a similar policy, according to the nonprofit group Unchained At Last.

Those laws do not go far enough, said Unchained At Last founder and Executive Director Fraidy Reiss. She said 231 minors were married in Missouri between 2019 and 2021.

“Under the new law, almost all of them, like before, were girls wed to adult men,” Reiss said of the children recently married. “That is unacceptable.”

Bills pending this year in states including Missouri, California and South Carolina would prohibit underage marriages completely.

Efforts to ban child marriage altogether have failed before in states including South Dakota, California and West Virginia.

Supporters of child marriages say minors sometimes marry to escape the foster care system or to raise children as a wedded couple. Others have cited anecdotal cases of people in their communities marrying as children and enjoying the relationship.

Rebecca Hurst, a former Missouri resident who now lives in Kentucky, said her mother arranged her marriage to a 22-year-old fellow church-goer at age 16 to save her from “damnation.”

Hurst said her ex-husband physically, emotionally and sexually abused her. She said he refused to go to prom with her “because he said it was embarrassing to be a grown man at a high school event” and forced her to drop out of school.

“I had no one advocating for me or my right to stay a child,” Hurst said. “Parents cannot always be trusted to make the best decisions for their child.”

For Missouri Republican state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, marriage to her 21-year-old boyfriend at age 15 was a chance to escape poverty and the premature responsibility of caring for her younger sister and her mentally unwell mother. But she warned girls in similar situations against marrying.

“I was not old enough to understand what challenges I was putting on myself,” Thompson Rehder said.

She said her little sister later got married at age 16 to her 39-year-old drug dealer.

After Missouri GOP Rep. Chris Dinkins’ sister became pregnant at age 15, Dinkins said her parents followed cultural expectations and signed papers allowing her sister to marry the child’s father. The relationship later turned abusive, Dinkins said, and the marriage did not last long.

Marriage for people younger than 18 was legal in all 50 U.S. states as of 2017, according to Unchained At Last. Nearly 300,000 children as young as 10 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Mostly, girls were wed to adult men, the organization said.

Reiss said marriage, “even for the most mature teen, creates a nightmarish legal trap because you just don’t have the rights of adulthood.”

Reiss said if a child is married against their will, the child cannot sue or file for divorce on their own. Thompson Rehder said marriages between minors and adults have been used by adults as a shield against rape charges.

Missouri’s bill passed unanimously out of a committee in February. One person — a former lobbyist for the state’s Baptist Convention — testified against it. An Associated Press call and email to the opponent were not immediately returned Wednesday.

The Missouri bill has not yet been debated on the Senate floor. Lawmakers face a mid-May deadline to pass legislation.

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Former Missouri child brides call for outlawing marriages of minors