North Carolina is known for its coasts, mountains, and as the state that was “first in flight,” but it has recently gained a more shady reputation as a regional destination for adults looking to marry minors.
State legislators are close to passing a bill that would reduce the state’s allure as a destination for child brides, but would still fall short of a nationwide effort to raise the age to 18. The proposed legislation would raise the minimum marriage age from 14 to 16 years old and provide a four-year age gap between a 16-year-old and their spouse.
Drew Reisinger, the register of deeds in Buncombe County, stated, “We will have moved the needle and made North Carolina no longer at the bottom of the barrel of states.” “We’re still going to be putting a lot of youngsters in danger,” he remarked.
According to Reisinger, the county, which includes the prominent tourist city of Asheville, attracts a large number of adult and child brides from adjacent states such as Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee, all of which have recently raised the minimum marriage age.
Reisinger noted that two-thirds of marriage applications in Buncombe County last year involving at least one person under the age of 18 came from persons outside of North Carolina, noting that a 49-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl recently arrived from Kentucky seeking a license.
He remarked, “North Carolina is one of the kindest places in the South to give them a safe haven.”
According to Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping child and forced marriages in the United States, the state is now one of 13 that allows children under the age of 16 to marry. According to the organisation, nine of those states have no specified minimum age, instead relying on case law or a judge’s decision.
Children as young as 14 years old can marry in North Carolina if they become pregnant and a court agrees. Otherwise, with parental consent, children as young as 16 can marry. Alaska is the only other state with a legislation that expressly permits 14-year-old marriages.
According to a study by the International Center for Research on Women, a research institute and rights organization for women and children, nearly 8,800 minors were listed on marriage licenses in North Carolina between 2000 and 2015, putting the state among the top five in the country for child marriages. According to the organisation, 93 percent of the marriage applications it analyzed from 2000 to 2019 had a kid marrying an adult.
One of the study’s co-authors, Lyric Thompson, said, “It undermines the assumption that if child marriage occurs, it will be the Romeo-and-Juliet scenario of two 17-year-olds who can’t wait to love each other.”
However, progress has been gradual in North Carolina, where some lawmakers believe that certain marriages involving children are still permissible.
Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Davidson County Republican, said, “It’s a generational gap.” “It was the older members — Democrats and Republicans alike — who had those personal stories of family members who had married and had it work out.”
Sawyer was a proponent of a bill that would have raised the legal drinking age to 18 years old. Instead, a compromise bill that received unanimous Senate approval in May and House approval this week would raise the minimum marriage age to 16 without exceptions, including pregnancy. Even those as young as 16 or 17 would require parental consent or a judge’s ruling that the marriage would be in the “best interests of an underage party.”
“As a conservative Christian, I am a strong advocate of the sacrament of marriage,” said Rep. Kristin Baker of Cabarrus County, who helped steer the bill through the House.
“As a child psychiatrist, I am committed to safeguarding our most vulnerable children and improving their chances for a healthy and happy future,” she stated. “I believe this bill accomplishes those goals.”
The bill’s proposed maximum age gap of four years is modeled after statutory rape statutes, which make having sexual intercourse with someone much older a serious felony for a juvenile. The bill needs one more Senate vote before reaching to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law this week.
Unchained at Last and the International Center for Research on Women are two organizations advocating for states to raise the marriage age to 18 without exceptions. Six states have met that criterion, the most recent being New York, which did so last month.
Former child brides such as Judy Wiegand of Kentucky, who spoke before a North Carolina House committee in June to urge legislators to modify the legislation, have lent their support to the groups.
“It is the government’s responsibility to protect all children,” Wiegand told legislators. In the 1970s, Wiegand married an older adolescent male, the father of her child, when she was 13 years old. She said that the law left her mostly unprotected against an abusive spouse until she reached adulthood.
Former child brides in North Carolina who have been contacted by lobbyists say they are too traumatized by their experiences to appear publicly before legislators. Instead, women like Wiegand have spoken forward: “I’m testifying in favor of the law because I don’t feel like someone did it for me,” she said.
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Jean Fields, who married a guy in his twenties at the age of 15 in 1965, is another woman eager to come out. By the age of 21, Fields had three children. She eventually divorced her spouse after years of verbal abuse and belittlement, according to her.
Fields, who is now 72, has another married name that she does not wish to reveal in order to save her extended family any embarrassment. She stated in a phone interview that after divorcing her husband, she raised her children, went back to school, and now owns two businesses. Despite her eventual success, she advises others against marrying young.
“I regret that I never had the chance to be a teenager,” she expressed sadness.
Last year, the number of Buncombe County marriage applications that involved at least one person under the age of 18 and originated from people outside of North Carolina made up two-thirds of all applications involving an underage applicant, not two-thirds of all marriage applications in the county, as previously stated.