Senator Javan James has sponsored a bill that would end child marriage in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the measure has succeeded at overcoming its first hurdle during a Senate hearing in the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks, and Recreation — which Mr. James chairs — today.
Bill No. 33-0109 is an Act amending Virgin Islands Code by prohibiting the issuance of a marriage license to persons under the age of 18. The measure now heads to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further vetting.
Presently, the existing law allows for underaged teenagers to be forced into marriage with the consent of their father, single mother, or guardian. Sexual intercourse with a child from ages thirteen to seventeen is considered second-degree aggravated rape and is punishable to up to life in prison under Virgin Islands law. However, once the child is married, this law is no longer applicable.
“The current Virgin Islands Code allows females who are 14 years old and males who are 16 years old to be married in the U.S. Virgin Islands with the consent of the parents or guardian. Based on my research and collaboration with nonprofit organizations, we found it fitting to stop underage-marriage in the territory,” Mr. James said.
Between 2000 and 2015, there were at least 207,468 marriages involving minors in the United States, according to figures from PBS’s Frontline. In May 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have ended legal child marriage in his state, in part because he said that he believed it would violate religious customs. “I agree that protecting the well-being, dignity, and freedom of minors is vital, but the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill’s proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this State,” Mr. Christie said at the time.
The law passed in the state in June 2018 under Governor Phil Murphy, requiring persons to wait until they’re 18 to obtain a marriage license.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council Executive Director Khnuma Simmonds expressed support for the bill. “The legal age to vote and to sign-up for the army is age 18, yet it is legal for an underage child to marry an adult. There is no excuse to be senseless and lawless because legally a child is still not independent despite entering into a marriage,” she said.
Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit devoted to ending child marriages, said that underaged children forced into marriages scarcely have legal rights. “Children in the Virgin Islands do not have the right to leave home and seek refuge in shelters from parents who are planning unwanted marriages or trying to escape an abusive spouse,” Mr. Fraidy said.
Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin stated that DHS frequently encountered child marriages during investigations of cases of teenage pregnancy. However, the statistics on the number of child marriages in the territory is currently unknown because it was not prohibited by law.
There is no federal law regarding child marriage. Every state sets its own requirements.