Bay Area Lawmaker Fights To Protect Young Women From Coerced Marriages

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A Bay Area lawmaker is leading the charge to protect young women from underage marriages.

Despite the young girls’ emotional testimony, a fight for tougher restrictions in California is experiencing some surprising pushback.

“Hell is a very real place for a child. People talk about hell as an abstract, but that’s not how I was raised. We were raised with vivid representations of what hell looked like,” said Sara.

Sara’s father joined a strict religious group in California when she was 10 years old. Disagreement with elders was an offense punishable by hell. When she was 15, Sara’s father delivered some news.

“My father basically sat me down and said that I was going to get married to somebody who the leader of the group was choosing. That was basically all the information I was given. We went to a conference in Los Angeles, and I was introduced to a man who was 13 years older than me that morning and I was forced to religiously marry him that same evening,” Sara said.

Sara was pregnant at 16 and got legally married.

She says no one should be able to marry until they’re 18.

“If the marriage is not coercive then that person can wait until 18 to make that decision for themselves as a fully grown adult. The same way that a person could consent to sex. A person cannot consent to sex under 18, yet the current laws allow for a loophole through that statutory rape law,” Sara said.

Bay Area Senator Jerry Hill proposed a law — SB 273 — to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but opposition, including senator Hannah Beth Jackson and the ACLU forced him to change direction.

“When we proposed the 18 minimum age, we knew that there were certain circumstances, we just hadn’t heard them yet,” Hill said.

The ACLU argued that not all underage marriages are coercive and that there’s not enough data to make a good judgement about the issue.

So on Tuesday, the judiciary committee passed a new version of SB 273 that requires a court counselor to individually interview anyone under 18 who wants to get married, and it requires all courts to track and publish data on the court petitions and ages of the people making the request.

Hill says he’s laying the groundwork for more restrictions.

“The purpose of the data collection is to be able to look in 2019 to see where we are,” Hill said.

He says once there is more information, another law can be proposed.

In the meantime, Sara says this is a good start and wishes she had had an individual interview when she was a teenager.

“I watch people my age having careers building their lives and I feel ten steps behind them,” Sara said.

The bill passed unanimously out of the committee and now it goes to the assembly, where they can make amendments.

Some advocates for children say some young women want to get married to get out of the foster care system, while others say that young women who are pregnant may want to get married to legitimize their family and make it legal.

By collecting data, the state hopes to get a better sense of the population that is getting married under 18, and why.

More from Melissa Caen
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