New legislator pushes to raise state marriage age
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Some girls said they were isolated from friends and family during their marriages. Others said their husbands physically abused them. More said they missed out on the chance to finish high school or go to college.
Rep. Cassandra Levesque, 19, who pushed for the law to raise New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age to 16 last year as part of a Girl Scout project, said she received dozens of messages from girls who told her they were forced into child marriages.
Now, Levesque, a newly-elected state legislator, said she feels a responsibility to continue to fight for the young women who entrusted her with their stories. She filed a bill this legislative session that would raise the state marriage age even higher — to 18.
“Some people may feel that 16 or 17-year-old children know what love is and fully understand what they are getting themselves into,” Levesque told the Children and Family Law committee Tuesday. “However, I have heard from many victims who disagree with this. They have shared their stories with me. Their voices will forever echo in my heart and mind.”
Levesque was just 17 when she first worked with former Rep. Jackie Cilley from Barrington to draft a bill that would raise the marriage age — then 13 for girls and 14 for boys — to 18 in 2017. That bill failed amid questions over whether teens could marry while one of them was deployed for military service.
But Levesque was determined, and last year, she managed to pass a bill that would raise the age to 16, the age of consent in New Hampshire. She was also elected to the House of Representatives and said she vowed to herself then that she would give raising the age to 18 another try.
She said she’s done research since she first tried to raise the age to 18 that makes her feel confident that the bill will pass this time. For one, she said she learned that whether a service member is married or not would not affect their survivor benefits, which concerned some legislators the first time around.
Rep. Josh Adjutant, who is a Marine Corps veteran, testified on Tuesday, saying that the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Department of Defense provides several options those in the military can designate survivor benefits to, in addition to a spouse. They can go to a child or another person of that service member’s choice, which could include a significant other.
“There are ways in DOD or UCMJ policy to provide those benefits to survivors of somebody without necessarily having to be in a marriage,” he said.
Levesque said one issue that could affect military couples is that a girlfriend or boyfriend of a service member might not be guaranteed living arrangements with them on the base where they are serving. But Levesque said 16 or 17-year-olds should be able to wait until they are of age before they decide to make that commitment and move in.
“For a 17-year-old girl who is marrying willingly and for all the right reasons, waiting a few months to marry is at worst an inconvenience,” she said.
Rep. Ellen Read of Rockingham, a sponsor of the bill, said marriage is too big of a responsibility for those under 18 to even consider taking on. Most other adult privileges — owning a gun, voting, joining the military — are not given to children.
“Why is it that the most important contract many people will enter into in their lives is the only one we allow children to sign?” she said. “There is nowhere else in the legal universe where a 16-year-old’s signature amounts to a hill of beans.”
The way the law is right now, those underage have to receive parental permission and sign-off from a judge to get married. But Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, an organization that helps a woman escape from forced marriages in places throughout the country, including in New Hampshire, said that isn’t the best safety net.
“When a child is forced to marry, the perpetrator is almost always the parents,” she said. “Having the parents involved in no way protects a child from a forced marriage.”
Reiss said many women she’s worked with also told her that they lied to a judge when he or she asked if they were marrying willingly because they were afraid of repercussions at home.
But Rep. Al Baldasaro said he thinks that changing the age in New Hampshire wouldn’t stop child marriage — just motivate young people to go to other states to get married where it’s legal.
“You force them out of the state, that’s all you’re going to do,” he said.
Levesque said she feels more prepared to take on any questions or criticisms of the bill this time than she did two years ago.
“I felt very nervous because I didn’t know anybody, but I know the people on the committee, I have relationships with other legislators,” she said after the hearing ended. “Now, I’m confident in what I know, I have facts. I have a 6-inch binder just full data.”
During the hearing, fellow Democrats on the committee commended her for her commitment to the topic of child marriage.
“Thank you, representative, for your persistence on this for so many years. It’s remarkable,” Rep. Skip Berrien said.
“I’m so proud of you — I know we all are in this room,” said Rep. Francesca Diggs.
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com