West Virginia will no longer allow children under 16 to marry, after the governor signed a compromise bill Wednesday. The law signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice continues allowing children ages 16 and 17 to get married with restrictions. Under the new law, the AP reports, those minors must obtain parental consent and can't marry someone more than four years older. Existing legal marriages, and those from other states, are unaffected. Previously, anyone younger than 16 could have gotten married with a judge's waiver. Similar bills to ban child marriage were proposed in recent years but didn't go anywhere.
Some Democrats, including the bill's sponsor, Del. Kayla Young of Kanawha County, had hoped to eliminate child marriage altogether. Some Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature spoke about how they or their parents had married before adulthood and argued that state recognition of the relationships helps keep families together. Young said she had to compromise with Republican colleagues to secure a minimum age for marriage and celebrated the aspect of the bill that prohibits large age gaps, per the AP. Seven states have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, all since 2018, according to the advocacy group Unchained at Last, which has lobbied for legislation in various states to end child marriage. The group calls the practice a human rights abuse.
Supporters of such legislation say it reduces domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, and improves the lives of teens. West Virginia had the highest rate of child marriages among the states, according to the Pew Research Center. There were around seven marriages for every 1,000 children ages 15 to 17 in West Virginia in data collected from 2010 to 2014, compared to around 4.6 marriages per 1,000 for the same age group nationwide. More recent figures were unavailable. The United Nations Population Fund, which also considers child marriage a human rights violation, says that one in five girls globally is formally married or in an informal union before age 18. The rate is much higher in the least developed countries.
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