Marriage changes everything. In North Carolina, it transforms the act of statutory rape of a girl of 15 into a legal act. In other words, you can’t be charged with statutory rape of a girl 15 years or younger if you are less than six years younger than the girl or legally married to her.
Until this week, it was legal to marry a girl as young as 14 if she became pregnant or if a judge agreed. It was legal for anyone to marry a 16-year-old with parental permission.
Now, Gov. Roy Cooper has signed a law that outlaws marriage to 14- and 15-year-olds altogether and bans 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying someone more than four years older than themselves.
The legislation was passed to counter a troubling trend: people from other states coming to North Carolina to marry child brides. Buncombe County, for example, had become a destination for adults from Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina to bring their child brides for weddings, since all of those states have raised their minimum age for marriage.
In fact, last year, two-thirds of the marriage license applications in Buncombe County that involved a person under the age of 18 were submitted by people who are not residents of North Carolina. One example involved a 49-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl from Kentucky.
Child marriage is rarely between love-struck teenagers
Recently, the International Center for Research on Women studied marriage license applications between 2000 and 2019. Between 2000 and 2015, almost 9,000 minors were parties to marriage licenses in North Carolina, putting the state in the top 5 for child marriages during that period.
Of all marriage license applications involving someone under 18 between 2000 and 2019, 93% involved a minor and an adult.
“It disrupts the notion that if child marriage happens, it is the Romeo-and-Juliet scenario of two 17-year-olds who just can’t wait to love each other,” said one of the study’s co-authors.
Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that works to end child marriage in the U.S., found similar information. It estimates that over 200,000 children have been married in the U.S. since 2000, the majority of which involved girls being married to adult men.
The organization argues that child marriages risk sexual and domestic violence against the teen, increased mental and physical health problems, higher school dropout rates and increased chances of poverty. Moreover, around 80% of child marriages end in divorce.
Still, some lawmakers pointed to anecdotes of child marriages working out all right in the long term as a reason to keep the existing law, or at least to oppose a change that would have made it illegal for anyone under 18 to marry at all.
Reporters spoke to women who were married off as children.
“I know what it feels like to be helpless and afraid and to do everything from a basis of fear — and I can imagine that there are a lot of people who feel that way,” said one.
Another woman who was married and pregnant at 13 in the 1970s told lawmakers that the law failed to protect her from her husband’s abuse. “I’m speaking in favor of the bill because I feel nobody did it for me,” she said.
The new age limit passed unanimously
There was a bit of wrangling over whether the bill should prohibit underage marriage altogether or limit it to those 16 and older. In the end, the latter version passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. Gov. Cooper signed the bill into law on Thursday.
“As a conservative Christian, I am a strong supporter of the sacrament of marriage,” said Rep Kristin Baker (R.-Concord). “As a child psychiatrist, I am determined to protect our vulnerable youth, and to enhance their chances for happy, healthy futures. I believe this bill achieves both those measures, and I am honored to be a part of this critical effort.”
The new law brings some consistency to our state’s theory on wrongful sexual intercourse. Now, marriage is no longer a defense for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old.