Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on Friday signed into law a ban on child marriage, making it the third state to fully outlaw marriage for people under the age of 18. Only Delaware and New Jersey also ban child marriage.
Pennsylvania’s legislature unanimously voted to approve the ban last, and Wolf signed it into law as part of House Bill 360, which set 18 as the minimum age to obtain a marriage license. Before the ban, an applicant younger than 16 could obtain a marriage license with court approval, and those between the ages of 16 and 18 could obtain one with parental consent, CBS News Pennsylvania affiliate WKBN reports.
According to Unchained, an organization that works to end forced and child marriage in the United States, an estimated more than 2,300 children between 15 to 17 living in Pennsylvania were married under those exceptions since 2014.
“Setting the minimum age to obtain a marriage license will help prevent child exploitation,” said Governor Wolf in a press release Friday. “Marriage is a sacred and serious commitment that should be undertaken with love by two adults, not by children being exploited by unscrupulous adults.”
According to marriage-license data from across the United States analyzed by Unchained, some 248,000 children at least as young as 12 years old were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. An overwhelming majority of them were females.
“These were not ‘Romeo and Juliet’ situations,” Unchained says on its website. “Some 77% of the children wed were minor girls married to adult men, often with significant age differences. Some children were wed at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws.”
The minimum marriage age in most U.S. states is 18, according to Unchained, but 47 states allow people under 18 to get married through exceptions like parental consent or judicial approval. Several states do not have any minimum age for which children cannot marry.
“Obviously, one child’s parental consent is another child’s parental coercion, but state laws do not call for anyone to ask the children whether they are being pressured into marriage,” reads Unchained’s information on common exceptions. “Even when a girl sobs openly while her parents sign the application and force her into marriage, the clerk has no authority to intervene.”
Unchained’s founder Fraidy Reiss told Philadelphia radio station KYW that laws to end child marriage are currently pending in nine states.
“It’s three states down, only 47 to go in the push to end child marriage in the United States,” she said. “The fact that Pennsylvania was able to do this despite the fact that there’s a global pandemic going on is just tremendous.”