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Four States Down: How Pennsylvania Banned Child Marriage

Earlier in 2020, Pennsylvania became the third state to ban child marriage in the U.S. On May 8, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 360 into law following a unanimous vote in the Pennsylvania Congress.

"Setting the minimum age to obtain a marriage license will help prevent child exploitation," Wolf said in a news release, "Marriage is a sacred and serious commitment that should be undertaken with love by two adults, not by children being exploited by unscrupulous adults."

Prior to the passage of H.B. 360, children under the age of 16 could obtain a marriage license with court approval; and those under the age of 18 could obtain one with the consent of a parent or guardian. Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending child marriage in the U.S., estimates that since 2014, more than 2,300 children between the ages of 15 and 17 were married in Pennsylvania under these exceptions.

Now, you must be 18 to obtain a marriage license in the state, with no exceptions. The fight to pass this lifesaving bill –– however –– was not easy. In fact, it took two years.

A legislative ban on child marriage, backed by members on both sides of the political aisle, was first introduced as H.B. 2542 by Rep. Perry Warren (D-Yardley) and Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford) back in the summer of 2018. Warren and Topper then reintroduced the bill as H.B. 360 in early 2019. In the state Senate that year, similar legislation was reintroduced by Sen. John Sabatina, Jr. (D-District 5), Sen. Judith Schwank (D-District 11), and Sen. Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R-District 35).

But it still took another year to get the ban in front of Governor Wolf in order to get it passed. The fact that it even got that far was a true testament to the tireless work of advocacy groups over the last two years.

In order to get this bill passed, Unchained at Last, along with the AHA Foundation, Child USA, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, members of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage, and many others, formed the Pennsylvania Coalition to End Child Marriage early in the process. In addition to chain-ins, emails, and phone calls to Pennsylvania legislators and Governor Wolf, a social media campaign, and countless legislative sessions, the coalition also compiled in-depth legal research conducted on a pro bono basis. Not to mention they did most of this in the middle of a global pandemic which highlights their unwavering commitment to end child marriage in Pennsylvania.

Advocacy groups like Unchained at Last also played a crucial role in the passage of child marriage bans in the only other states that have banned child marriage: New Jersey, Delaware, and Minnesota.

Ending child marriage in the remaining 46 states will require energized activism, productive and inclusive advocacy, and impassioned determination.

That’s where Students Against Child Marriage comes in. By elevating survivors’ voices, engaging stakeholders, working with existing advocates, and capitalizing on the organizing power of students, SACM is mobilizing a nationwide movement to compel lawmakers to act on child marriage reforms or to create new legislation to end this dangerous practice.

Want to learn more about the work SACM is doing legislatively? Check out our 10 State Strategic Plan here. To join us in this fight, consider starting a chapter at your school or joining our national team. Four states down, 46 more to go.

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