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Ending child marriages Washington

Photo courtesy of Stopchidmarriages.org

Bill to stop child marriage in WA gaining traction

Passed by the House, HB 1455 faces its first Senate committee vote this week

In the U.S., turning 18 is a someone magical line. As all parents know, once teens step over that line, they can legally make life-changing decisions, give consent, and access legal, financial, and support resources that they could not obtain without parent or guardian consent. 

Bill aims to end child marriages

That is part of why the sponsors of House Bill 1455 (HB 1455), currently being considered by Washington lawmakers, wrote the measure aimed at stopping child marriage in Washington. While current law stipulates that in most situations, you must be at least 18 years old to get married here, there are exceptions:

  • A child 17 years old can be married if they have parental or legal guardian permission 
  • Kids under the age of 17 may be married if they obtain permission from a superior court judge. In fact, Washington is one of just a handful of states that don’t specify a minimum age for marriage.

HB 1455 would end those exceptions. The bill has been passed by the Washington House of Representatives. Members of the Senate Committee on Law & Justice are expected to vote on the measure on February 15, a count that will decide if the bill moves forward in the legislative process. 

According to the nonprofit advocacy group Unchained at Last and Stop Child Marriages, nearly 5,000 Washington kids under age 18 were married between 2000 and 2021. Currently, Washington is one of just a handful of states that don’t specify a minimum age for marriage.

Data reported by Unchained found:

  • the youngest child married between 2000 and 2021 was 13 years old
  • 83 % of children married in Washington between 2000 and 2021 were girls wed to adult men
  • In more than 38 of the 5,000 Washington child marriages in that time frame, the spousal age difference would have constituted a sex crime without marriage

Adults have access kids don’t

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Monica Stonier (D-Clark County), told senate committee members last month about the trauma she learned that many girls experience when they are either forced to marry or do so believing they have the maturity to cope with marriage. 

“I got to hear stories from people who were married at 14 – with permission granted by a judge,” Stonier said. “In my opinion, in the opinion of many survivors, a judge should not be able to consent a young person into a lifelong commitment in marriage before they are legally able to access financial services and legal help and the full array of protections that everybody else over the age of 18 would have access to if they found themselves in a coercive or abusive relationship.” 

Fraidy Reiss, a forced marriage survivor and founder of Unchained at Last, pointed out the current undermines Washinton’s sexual “The current law completely contradict(s) our statutory rape laws,” said Reiss. “Sex with a child under age 16 is a crime. It’s considered rape in Washington and falls outside of close-in-age exceptions. But marriage to a child of any age is legal.

“We’re making a mockery of our statutory rape laws, and basically sending children home to be raped in many cases,” Reiss told lawmakers. “We also have this very dangerous situation where once a child of any age is married in Washington—and remember, a two-year-old technically could be married in Washington—they’re automatically emancipated.” That means parents are no longer obliged to support them financially.

Bill resurrected from 2023 session

Stonier said the bill, which was introduced in 2023 but did not make it through last year’s legislative session, not only addresses concerns about maturity in making a marriage decision but also cultural environments in which children are betrothed early in life and expected to engage or live with the person they have been engaged to.

“It’s not just the marriage element that is coercive and abusive,” Stonier said during the senate committee’s hearing on the bill. “Knowing as an 11-year-old that you are living with somebody who you are going to be forced to marry in just a couple of years raises a lot of questions. It’s not just the mechanism around marriage, but what it allows when children are able to be consented for by somebody else.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, (R-Aberdeen) echoed Stonier’s sentiments in supporting HB 1455:

“There are some elements of life that a child is not capable of entering into or deciding about on his or her own,” Walks said. “We believe that this issue, marriage, is one of those. A child still developing the values and the principles that he or she will live their lives on. This bill acknowledges that minor children cannot consent to all of life’s choices and that the state has a role in protecting and holding in reverence their childhood.”

Take action

Let your lawmakers know how you feel about the Youth Education and Outreach Program (YEOP) and the DNR’s request. Contact your lawmaker about any bill and ask how you can make your voice heard:

Read more:

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About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.