The Honorable Charlie Baker

Governor of Massachusetts

Massachusetts State House

24 Beacon St., Room 280

Boston, MA 02133

Re:       Support for HD 1478/ S24 — An Act to end Child Marriage in Massachusetts

 

Dear Governor Baker,

Human Rights Watch writes in strong support of bill H1478/ S24, An Act to End Child Marriage in Massachusetts. This law, if passed, would maintain the minimum age of marriage at 18, and eliminate current legal provisions that permit courts to approve the marriage of children of any age with parental consent. It would protect children from dangers inherent in child marriages.

Human Rights Watch is an independent international human rights organization. It conducts research and advocacy on human rights in more than 90 countries, including the United States. For more than a decade Human Rights Watch has worked to end child marriage in countries around the world. Our aim is to help end the practice by 2030, the target set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Together with partner organizations, we work on this issue in the US, where child marriage is legal in 48 states. Human Rights Watch is currently working with a coalition of some 40 organizations, experts, and academic institutions to end child marriage in Massachusetts.

Child marriage endangers children

Between 2000 and 2016, more than 1,200 children were married in Massachusetts.[1] Almost all were girls marrying adult men. During this period, judges approved the marriages of 57 girls under age 16 (the legal age of consent in Massachusetts) to adult men.

Research by organizations including Unchained at Last,[2] Tahirih Justice Center,[3] and Human Rights Watch[4] on the impacts of child marriage in the United States and other countries shows that child marriage is deeply harmful. It puts girls (who are far more likely to be subjected to child marriage than boys) at risk of negative health outcomes, curtailed education, poverty, and domestic violence. 

Inadequate protections for married children

Children who are married can also face great difficulty in escaping violent relationships and accessing the services of domestic violence or homeless shelters. Massachusetts law requires that homeless shelters obtain parental consent for children to be housed beyond 72 hours.[5] Domestic violence shelters in Boston and Holyoke told Human Rights Watch that they do not admit children unless they are accompanied by an adult. Considering that child marriages often result from parental coercion, this is an untenable situation for abused child brides. 

Momentum for Reform

Other states have recognized the risks of child marriage and started to act. Delaware and New Jersey fully outlawed child marriage in 2018. Other states have raised the minimum age of marriage or tightened the rules to significantly reduce child marriage. A growing number of states are considering bills to ban child marriage. Massachusetts now has the chance to lead the charge by becoming the third state to end child marriage.

For these reasons, we urge you to take a stand for children and enact bill H1478/S24.

Sincerely,

 

Heather Barr

Acting Co-Director, Women’s Rights Division

 

[1] Data provided to Human Rights Watch by the Office of Representative Kay Khan in January 2019. The data was collected from the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. On file with Human Rights Watch.

[2] See, e.g., Unchained at Last, “Child Marriage – Devastating Consequences,” http://www.unchainedatlast.org/child-marriage-devastating-consequences/ (accessed March 13, 2019); Unchained at Last, “Talking Points and Frequently Asked Questions About Ending Child Marriage in Massachusetts,” January 21, 2019.

[3] See, e.g., Tahirih Justice Center, “Falling Through the Cracks: How Laws Allow Child Marriage To Happen In Today’s America,” August 2017.

[4] For links to relevant reports and press materials, visit the “Child Marriage” portion of the Human Rights Watch website at https://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights/child-marriage.

[5] Massachusetts General Law, Title XVII, Chapter 119, Section 23(a)(7) states: “A temporary shelter care facility program or a group care facility, licensed under chapter 15D, may provide temporary shelter for a 72-hour period to a child without parental consent, if the child's welfare would be endangered if such shelter were not immediately provided. At the expiration of the 72-hour period, the licensee shall: (i) secure the consent of a parent or guardian to continued custody and care; (ii) refer the child to the department for custody and care; or (iii) refuse to provide continued care and custody to the child.”