The U.S. State Department classifies forced marriage as a human rights abuse, while the International Labor Organization has called it a form of modern slavery (PDF).
“The federal government considers marriage under the age of 18 in foreign countries a human rights abuse, yet it still remains legal right here in our own backyards,” Petrie-Norris said at the protest. “I am committed to ending this human rights abuse in California. One child forced into marriage is one too many.”
Under California law, it’s statutory rape when an adult has sex with someone younger than 18 if they are not married. The crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the age difference.
The law that eventually passed in 2018 required a judge and Family Court Services to interview both parties to the marriage and a guardian to determine that coercion, child abuse and trafficking were not taking place.
The law also required local registrars to begin reporting the number of marriage certificates issued to minors. Since 2019, the state has reported fewer than 20 child marriages.
But in 2021, about 8,800 15- to 17-year-olds in California reported being married in the previous 12 months to the U.S. Census, according to an analysis by Unchained At Last. The vast majority, but not all, are girls.
The group says that the huge difference in the numbers is because many registrars are not keeping track of child marriages.
What other states are doing
Since the limited 2018 law took effect in California, nine states have made the marriage age 18 with no exceptions: Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. This week, Michigan’s Legislature voted to ban child marriage.
Protestors and advocates hope that California will be the eleventh state to ban child marriage with no exceptions. But a bill to do that has already been weakened in the current session.
Instead of setting a minimum marriage age, the bill now addresses some underage marriages that are done through spiritual ceremonies that are not legally recognized.
“While some — myself included — have concerns with minors getting married under any circumstances, California does have some guardrails to protect children,” the bill’s author, Sen. Aisha Wahab, a Fremont Democrat, said in a statement to CalMatters. “However, current law does not account for instances in which a third party arranges or officiates an underground marriage between a minor and another person, and that is what we are targeting with this bill.”