Members of the Senate’s Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks and Recreation moved Tuesday to close a loophole in the territory’s laws that allow minors to get married as young as 14 years of age.
If Bill No. 33-0109 becomes law, it will amend current law that allows minors to wed at the discretion of their parents or guardian.
“The marriage age in the Virgin Islands is 18, but the law includes a gaping loophole,” according to Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to ending child and forced marriages. In the V.I., “Girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 can marry if their father consents. In the absence of a father, their mother may consent to the marriage, in the absence of a mother, a guardian may consent. This loophole seriously endangers children,” Reiss said.
Sens. Javan James and Athneil Thomas proposed the bill, which would eliminate the exceptions to the 18-year-old age limit for marriage licenses.
Reiss started Unchained At Last after being forced into a marriage at the age of 19.
“I was 19 when my family forced me to marry a stranger who turned out to be violent. I was trapped in that abusive marriage for 12 years, and when I finally managed to escape with my two daughters, my family punished me by shunning me. More than a decade later, they still consider me dead,” Reiss said.
She told the senate how she had to rebuild her life. One of the ways she did this was through founding the organization, she said.
“We at Unchained are almost always able to help the adults, 18 and older, who reach out to beg for help resisting or escaping a forced marriage. But more and more girls under 18 have been reaching out to ask for the same help and there is almost nothing we can do for them,” Reiss said.
Many of the girls who have reached out to Reiss’ organization turn to suicide attempts and self-harm said Reiss, because death seems to be the only way out for them.
Jean Matthew, president of the V.I. National Association of Social Workers, cited statistics from the World Bank that 41,000 girls marry before the age of 18 every day, 15 million each year. It is a practice that ultimately affects girls, she said.
Women’s Coalition of St. Croix Executive Director Clema Lewis said she has been working with children on St. Croix for more than 35 years as a social worker, counselor, advocate and mentor.
“We have worked with several cases where children between the ages of 14 and 16 years old were forced to get married by their parents,” Lewis said. “In both cases the children were pregnant and forced to marry the perpetrators to protect them from prosecution on statutory rape charges. The parents use the marriages as leverage to force the perpetrators to support their children. Both cases were brought to our office after the perpetrators refused to support the minors and their babies.”
In one of the cases Lewis told the senators the child was physically and sexually abused by her spouse and her parents eventually sent her and the baby off island. In the other case, Lewis said the child was also sexually abused and the perpetrator left the island, which left both the child and her baby to be supported by the local government.
“Both of the perpetrators were not prosecuted for statutory rape because they were married to the minors and they were left to reoffend other children without any consequences,” Lewis said.
Children are not emotionally prepared to be spouses or parents, Lewis said, after telling the committee the Woman’s Coalition was in full support of the bill.
V.I. Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin said the department has encountered several cases of child marriage, most frequently in cases of teen pregnancy.
Benjamin said it is sometimes the case that parents don’t wish to see legal ramifications for the men and thus provide consent to marry their daughters.
She said passing the bill would keep in line with the United Nations goal of eradicating child marriage across the globe by 2030.
The committee passed the bill unanimously, moving it on to the Senate Committee on Rules and the Judiciary. Members present for the vote were: Sens. James, Thomas, Dwyane DeGraff, Stedmann Hodge Jr. and Janelle Sarauw. Sens. Steven Payne Sr. and Kurt Vialet were absent.