When Dr. Nusrat Ameen hears from young women who married as children, it is often at the stage when they are trying to escape.
Ameen works for Daya, an organization in Houston that helps women or families that are dealing with domestic violence, and has been studying and advocating against forced marriages since 1999. She has heard from a 20-year-old college student whose parents had forced her to marry her cousin at age 16, and whose parents threatened to take away her tuition money unless she consummated the marriage. Ameen has heard from a 17-year-old girl forced to marry a 25-year-old man and who wanted to go off to college, not move in with a man she did not love. She's heard from a mother who was concerned that her daughter's friend was being forced into a marriage, who was wondering, what can we do to stop this?
The Texas Legislature may have just answered with a solution: banning child marriages altogether, as the House voted to do on Friday, sending the legislation up to Governor Greg Abbott for his signature.
Texas has long enjoyed the unfortunate honor of having the second-highest rate of child marriages in the United States, with a rate of seven per 1,000 children married between the ages of 15 and 17, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report. The Lone Star State just barely second to West Virginia. In Texas, there is actually no minimum age for marriage, so Ameen has even seen child brides as young as 12 or 13 marrying men in their twenties or thirties. From 2000 to 2014, more than 40,000 children got married in Texas, according to data published by the Tahirih Justice Center, another organization staunchly supportive of the bill. The problem cuts across cultural, religious and ethnic divides, Ameen said, but is more common with teen girls than boys.
For a child to get married in Texas, if she is 16 or 17, all she needs is a parent's consent — which can at times be more akin to coercion — and if she is 15 or younger, she also needs judicial approval.
"The parents may have good intentions to get the children off in hands of people they trust, and do something good for them in the long run," Ameen said. "But that may lead to a forced marriage because of the fact that the person is a child, not knowing how to protect herself. Forced marriage can give rise to domestic violence, to having reproductive rights refused and to being financially dependent on the person they are marrying."
Once the child is married and possibly faces domestic violence or sexual assault, even though she is still a kid, Child Protective Services can't help her, because she's married.
The bill that passed Friday — Senate Bill 1705, authored by Senator Van Taylor (R-Plano) and sponsored by Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) — would change all of that. It makes 18 the legal age to marry, and would allow people younger than 18 to marry only if they have already been emancipated by a court order (i.e., a judge has found that they live on their own and are no longer dependent on parents or guardians to support themselves).
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"We are very grateful to Senator Taylor for his leadership in taking this critical step to protect children in Texas from being forced to marry," Jeanne Smoot, senior policy counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center, another supporter of the bill, said in a statement. "This bill empowers young people to enter marriage only with their full and free consent."
Two poignant stories that circulated in recent months largely rallied legislators to support the bill. One was that of a Houston Chronicle writer's mother, who was forced into a marriage at age 14 and later escaped the marriage and lived out of a car with an infant for several months at age 17. Another was that of Trevicia Williams, who at 14 was forced into a marriage with a 26-year-old, abusive man. She gave birth to her first child while she was still one herself, at 15, and when she turned 18, she filed for divorce.
"I felt a deep sense of being powerless because of my age," she told legislators in written testimony. "Within the first 30 days of the marriage, my now ex-husband hit me...I asked my mother if I could return home and she told me no."
Should the bill be signed by Governor Abbott, it will go into effect on September 1.