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Virginia lawmakers move to raise age of marriage to 18. Only a few other states have.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Lawmakers in Virginia voted this month to require people to be 18 years old to get married. If the governor signs this bill into law, Virginia would be only the 12th state to ban marriage for minors. That's according to activists who tracked child marriages, which they say often lead to abuse. Jahd Khalil of member station VPM reports from Richmond.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: Brigitte Combs lives outside Richmond and says she came to a Virginia Senate committee when she heard they were looking at an issue close to her. She was clearly nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIGITTE COMBS: Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I'm Brigitte Combs. I'm a Virginia resident and a child marriage survivor.

KHALIL: She told the committee she was 15 and pregnant when married to a 37-year-old man. This was in the 1980s and in Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMBS: It didn't matter whether I was 15 or 17 because my parents would have done or had me do whatever was necessary to get me married. With all due respect, does anyone here actually think a vulnerable young person in fear of their parents, or even God himself, is going to protest?

KHALIL: Back then, minors could get married in all 50 states. In 2016, Virginia took a small step, setting the minimum age at 16 for minors who are officially emancipated from their parents. In 2018, Delaware was the first state to raise the age to 18 without exceptions. This year, Washington did the same, and several other states are looking at it. Naomi Cahn, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, attributes the change to both advocacy and shifting norms around pregnancy, which is often the reason for teen marriage.

NAOMI CAHN: To put this in a national perspective, the median age of marriage has increased dramatically over the past century. The teen pregnancy rate is also dropping, so sexual activity and - or at least pregnancy and marriage during the teen years is in general going down as a social matter.

KHALIL: Still, the advocacy group Unchained At Last says that between 2000 and 2018, about 300,000 minors under 18 were married in the U.S., the vast majority of whom are girls. But the scale can be hidden by the kind of isolation that Combs told me she faced.

COMBS: Through time and getting to meet people, I've found out more about it and found out, yeah, this is actually still a thing. And it's happening in America. It wasn't just me.

KHALIL: Once the bill cleared the committee, Combs and the other speakers stood up, hugged and cried. Casey Swegman is with the Tahirih Justice Center, which advocates on behalf of immigrant girls and for raising the minimum age to marry. She says they run into different ideological opposition around the country.

CASEY SWEGMAN: There are some groups that view the right to marry as an individual liberty that minors already hold. Emancipated minors are awarded many rights, but not all. They are not allowed to vote. They're not allowed to buy cigarettes. They're not allowed to drink. Age-based restrictions still exist, even for emancipated minors, and so why shouldn't marriage be one of those?

KHALIL: There are also arguments about minors trying to escape a bad or abusive home life, or that if they're in love, they should be able to marry. But for the most part, opposition runs along the lines of those still concerned with the community stigma that comes with teen pregnancy. For example, the faith-based organization The Family Foundation made the pregnancy point when speaking against raising the marriage age in Virginia. Some states have compromised by just requiring judges to approve teen marriages, but Combs says that's not enough.

COMBS: One person is too many. You want to tell me that, you know, it didn't matter, that I'm one person? Did it not matter?

KHALIL: Combs says she still feels the effect of being trapped in a marriage and of an escape at 18 that included temporarily leaving her children, fleeing down a country road and being homeless for a while.

COMBS: It wasn't a simple, oh, my gosh, I'm free now. It was a fight for life. It plays on one's confidence. It's the PTSD, the memories. There's so much. But I've come out the other side, and now I'm at a place where I would like to help turn that for something good.

KHALIL: In Virginia, the bill passed with bipartisan support. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin has yet to indicate if he will sign it.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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