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Four States Down: How Delaware Banned Child Marriage

Two years ago, Delaware once again lived up to its “First State” namesake, this time becoming the first state in the nation to ban child marriage without exceptions. On May 9, 2018, Governor John Carney signed House Bill 337 into law, officially making it illegal for anyone under 18 to marry.

“Children under 18 have no legal standing – they cannot file for divorce, utilize a domestic violence shelter, apply for a loan or open a credit card. They cannot enter any legal contract, but until this bill was signed, they could be married as a child without any way of escaping an abusive marriage,” said Rep. Kim Williams (D-Newport), a key sponsor of the bill.

H.B. 337 amended previous legislation that allowed children of any age to marry with parental consent and approval from a Family Court judge. Now, the minimum age is 18 with no exceptions.

“Now that we have closed this loophole in Delaware law, children will be protected from forced marriage and its dangerous consequences,” said Williams. “I am so proud that Delaware is leading the way to protect children, and I hope that other states follow suit.”

The bill also includes a section that allows a judge to annul current marriages where at least one of the partners is underage or married as a minor if the marriage was not confirmed once both spouses were at least 18.

Before getting to the governor’s desk, the bill passed the state House in April with 23 Democratic “Yes” votes, 11 Republican “No” votes, and 6 abstentions from five Republicans and one Democrat.

While the bill faced opposition in the House, it soared through the Senate with a unanimous vote on May 3 and was then sent on to Gov. Carney’s desk. At the root of this bill’s success was the fierce advocacy of Rep. Williams and organizations like Unchained at Last, which is dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the U.S.

“The fact that the bill passed unanimously should highlight how serious this problem is and how hard Rep. Williams and the advocates from Unchained at Last have worked on this bill,” said Sen. Nicole Poore (D-New Castle) who managed the bill on the Senate Floor.

Unchained at Last also partnered with other Delaware-based women’s groups including the Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy, the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Delaware League of Women Voters.

After Delaware, advocacy groups helped pass similar legislation in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Now, here at Students Against Child Marriage, our sights are set on the remaining 46 states that have not entirely banned child marriage.

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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