NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Delaware is poised to become the first of the 50 states in the United States to outlaw child marriage despite years of legislative battles, said officials, who hoped this would pave the way for other states to follow.
The measure banning marriage under age 18 without exception was approved by both legislative houses, and the state governor is expected to sign it into law as early as this week, a governor’s spokesman said on Monday.
While 18 is typically the minimum age for marriage in the United States, every state has legal loopholes or exceptions allowing children to wed at a younger age.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a significant moment for girls. This is historic,” Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a non-profit group opposed to child marriage, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Between 2000 and 2010, about 170,000 children under 18 were wed in 38 U.S. states where data was available, according to Unchained at Last.
Globally 12 million girls are married before 18 every year, according to Girls Not Brides, a partnership of organizations working to end child marriage.
Currently in Delaware, a small northeastern state along the Atlantic Ocean coast, children under 18 can marry with parental consent, and there are exceptions in cases of pregnancy.
The measure banning marriage for anyone under 18 passed Delaware’s Senate unanimously last week after passing the state House of Representatives in April.
The successful bill comes after roughly three years in which legislation failed in other U.S. states, Reiss said.
“Almost two dozen states have rejected or watered down legislation,” Reiss said. “This is a vestige of the past that we need to let go of, and legislators were having a tough time doing that.”
Lawmakers in Florida recently considered a bill to ban marriage for anyone under 18 but compromised on a law banning marriage under 17.
A bill to end child marriage in New Jersey is moving through the legislature where it is expected to be approved.
“I’m just hoping that Delaware won’t remain the only state to pass this,” Rep. Kim Williams, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I’m hoping states throughout the nation will join us.”
Campaigners are concerned that children married young tend to leave school early and are at increased risk of abuse. They have more health issues in pregnancy and childbirth and are poorer than those who marry at a later age, studies show.
Many who oppose ending the practice cite religious freedom or seek exceptions for those in military service or pregnant.