Texas has one of the highest child marriage rates in the country, but a new law seeks to change that.
In May, Texas joined a growing number of states cracking down on child marriage when Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 1705, which bans anyone under 16 from marrying. The law by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano — which went into effect Sept. 1 – also requires people under 18 to get a judge's consent before marrying.
The new law is about “not forcing women into marriage before their time,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the House sponsor of the measure.
“This gives girls the privilege to grow up and make the decision that they want to get married,” Thompson said.
Thompson also said she hopes the law will decrease the number of child brides.
Previously, there was no minimum age requirement for marriage in Texas. People under 16 could marry with a judge's consent, and those between 16 and 18 could marry with parental consent.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 40,000 minors were married in Texas— more than in any other state. Texas also had one of the highest rates of child marriage in the country, coming in fourth overall, and was one of 14 states that gave 13-year-olds the green light to marry.
Concerns about the alarming number of child brides have led 12 other states to ban marriage under the age of 16. In 2016, Virginia became the first state to adopt a policy increasing the minimum age of marriage to 18.
Almost 90 percent of minors in the U.S. who married between 2000 and 2015 were girls 16 or 17 years old, according to Frontline.
“I recognize that we’re a very large state, but I was devastated to learn we had a high rate of these marriages going on. I was physically shocked and absolutely taken aback,” Thompson said.
According to Jeanne Smoot, a spokesperson for the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that helps abused women and children, cultural and religious drivers may have combined with Texas’ large population to give the state its high number of child brides.
“Texas has an incredibly diverse population and many [families] … may see marriage as a way to prevent or address sex or pregnancy outside of marriage,” Smoot said. She added that in the many family contexts where she’s seen child marriages happen — from multi-generational families to those with a strict religious background — heavy parental involvement in whether, when and whom a child marries is expected.
Smoot also pointed to Texas’ high human trafficking rates as a reason for child marriages.
“Some child marriages result from poor parents who feel they can no longer provide for children, or abusive or neglectful parents who are looking to offload children and cut off any further obligation to them,” Smoot added. “But there are some cases that look like human trafficking, where parents are exploiting children for financial gain.”
Advocates hope this new law can protect children from being forced into marriage and allow them to enjoy their youth.
"I think children will finally get a voice in this process,” said Will Francis, the government relations director for the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.