Massachusetts poised to ban child marriage after years of effort

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Protesters chant outside the State House during a rally to set a minimum age for marriage in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Protesters chant outside the State House during a rally to set a minimum age for marriage in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

State Rep. Kay Khan said she was stunned when she first learned that Massachusetts was one of the few states with no minimum age to get married.

Indeed, the state recorded nearly 1,200 marriages involving children under 18 between 2000 and 2018, including some as young as 13, according to data from the Department of Public Health.

"I just sort of jumped at it and said, 'Oh my gosh, I had no idea,' " said Khan, Newton representative and chair of the Committee on Children and Families.

People under 18 currently just need permission of a parent or a judge to marry. But after almost six years of effort, Khan and others appear to finally be on the verge of changing that.

Both the House and Senate have included language banning marriages involving children under 18 in the state budget. And it is now sitting on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk for final approval.

Still, it took years of effort, illustrating the challenge of passing any non-controversial legislation on Beacon Hill.

In early 2017, Khan and state Sen. Harriette Chandler each filed a bill to set the minimum age to wed to 18 — the same age required to vote.

The lawmakers also brought supporters to the capitol to help push for the change. Women in white wedding dresses, some holding teddy bears, rallied on the State House steps.

But the bills didn't get very far, despite no public opposition.

So Khan and Chandler tried again in the next session in 2019. This time, they signed up more than 80 cosponsors.

They also brought back the women in wedding dresses and invited some former child brides to testify, sharing their stories with lawmakers.

This time, the bill overwhelmingly passed in the Senate. But with no explanation, it never even made it to the House floor for a vote. Khan said she isn't sure why.

"It's a simple bill," Khan said. "It's not like we're bursting at the seams with young girls wanting to get married."

The lack of progress frustrated supporters, including Tammy Monteiro, of New Bedford, who said she was forced into a painful marriage when she was only 15.

Monteiro shared her emotional story at a legislative hearing in 2019.

"Within the first years of marriage, I underwent a grooming period in which he filled me up with his doctrine," Monteiro said in a hushed hearing room. "And was told over and over again that women were the cause of all evils in the world and that through women, mankind has fallen."

Earlier this year, when the marriage ban seemed to be going nowhere once again, Monteiro shared her frustration.

"We want to know that our legislators are there for us and hear us and actually that we live in a democracy," Monteiro said. "We want that and we want to protect the rights of our children now."

But this year, all that effort appears to have paid off.

In a surprise move, the House folded the measure into the annual state budget. And Senate negotiators agreed to include it in the combined version.

Khan, the longtime sponsor, took to the House floor to thank her colleagues for finally getting it done. She said the measure would help many young women and girls.

"You know, sometimes it takes a long time to get things done in the legislature," Khan said. "There's so many hoops to jump through, but I'm so grateful."

This segment aired on July 25, 2022.


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



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