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Bill Would Ban Child Marriage In Massachusetts03:55
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Demonstrators gathered at the State House Wednesday wearing wedding gowns, chains and placards demanding passage of a bill to close what they described as a loophole allowing individuals under 18 to be married. (Chris Lisinski/SHNS)
Demonstrators gathered at the State House Wednesday wearing wedding gowns, chains and placards demanding passage of a bill to close what they described as a loophole allowing individuals under 18 to be married. (Chris Lisinski/SHNS)

Hearing Room A-2 at the Massachusetts State House fell quiet Tuesday morning as Tammy Monteiro began to tell her story.

She was testifying in favor of a bill that would ban child marriage, a practice still allowed under state law, so long as the parents of the minors grant permission.

Supporters of the ban say child marriage is oftentimes akin to child abuse.

Now 37, Monteiro described for legislators how as a teen in foster care, she became involved with a man who was nine years older than she was. She now describes him as part of a religious extremist group in Brockton.

"He began to take interest in me, a 15-year-old girl," Monteiro told the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. "I was still a virgin and my body was barely formed, a quiet teen not much into boys, but this grown man now was showing an interest in me and teaching me what he knew from his Bible. He claimed I was chosen, part of God's chosen people."

Monteiro says it was easy for the man to get her parents' consent to marry her as a teenager, since her mother was unstable and her father in prison. With permission from her mother, he got the OK of a judge in New Bedford.

"He was 25 and I was 16, and I had only known him for less than a year, and in one day he walked out of the courthouse with complete custody of me and permission to make me his wife," Monteiro said. "I had absolutely no clue what marriage was about, what this contract was about, and what it was binding me to."

Monteiro was bound in a marriage that lasted 20 years. She says she spent the last five years trying to get out, finally breaking free with the help of a domestic violence women's center.

State records show that 1,221 children — some as young as 14 — were married in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2016. Eighty-three percent of those children were girls.

Newton state Rep. Kay Khan pointed out that those married children do not have adult rights.

"As a minor, you cannot file for divorce, an annulment or an abuse prevention order; rent an apartment, open a checking account and, if married, seek services from the Department of Children and Families. A minor cannot purchase cigarettes, vote or serve on a jury, yet they can marry," said Khan, who is the House chair of the committee.

The laws allowing children to get married with parental permission date back to a time when one of the few options for a pregnant teen was marriage.

State Child Advocate Maria Mossaides endorses the bill and says times have changed.

"Massachusetts birth certificates no longer, as they did many years ago, stamp illegitimate on the birth certificate of anyone who is [born of parents who are] not married," Mossaides said. "So there is no longer the stigma that was attached when this original bill was filed."

During her marriage, Monteiro gave birth to eight children — the first when she was just 16. Since ending the marriage she has moved out of Massachusetts to get away from her former husband. She says she will not live her life as a victim.

"We need to end child marriage and save the lives of many young girls who are to come," Monteiro said. "I ask Massachusetts if they will put these laws in place to prevent anyone from going through the spiritual, emotional, financial abuse that I've gone through. And also the extreme heartache."

In other states reviewing teen marriage rules, there have been arguments that raising the age could violate religious freedom.

There is no visible opposition here in Massachusetts. Members of the committee appear in favor of the bill, but it's unclear exactly when it will be taken up by the full Legislature.

This segment aired on March 26, 2019.

Related:

Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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