An organization dedicated to ending violence against women and girls lauded Florida lawmakers Tuesday for filing bills that would make child marriage illegal under state law.
Democratic Rep. Daisy Baez filed a similar measure, HB 71, earlier this year in response to news reports of a Cutler Bay man who committed suicide rather than face possible legal repercussions for sexually abusing multiple girls — one of whom he married — lured into his home as foreign exchange students.
She also filed a bill, HM 99, that would provide stricter background checks for would-be host families.
The Tahirih Justice Center thanked the lawmakers for putting those bills forward.
“Allowing children to marry robs them of a childhood and forces them into mature situations for which they are not physically, emotionally, or financially prepared,” said Jeanne Smoot, the senior counsel for policy and strategy at Tahirih.
“Once married, they can face abuse and find themselves trapped in a violent relationship for years without the resources or options an adult would have to escape. We are incredibly grateful to Senator Benacquisto and her Senate co-sponsors as well as Representatives Nuñez and White for joining together to tackle this problem and offering well thought out solutions to protect Florida’s children.”
The lawmakers who filed the bills aren’t the only ones on the case. Earlier this year Florida’s child marriage problem caught the attention of Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, who was floored after hearing the story of a constituent who became pregnant at age 10 and was married off to her rapist at age 11.
“When you first watch a story like that, it makes you angry and it’s kind of like, how is this possible?”, Simpson told WTSP, the news outlet that shined a light on the child bride story over the summer, before vowing to push for a law change in 2018. “A 17-year-old can’t buy a house, can’t sign a contract, can’t do anything legally binding, but a 10-year-old can get married. That’s about a ridiculous thing that I have ever heard and sometimes an ounce of common sense goes a long ways.”
Since the turn of the century, more than 16,000 Florida minors have been named in marriage licenses issued and approved by the state. More than 3,000 of those marriages occurred this decade.
Tahirih said sexual contact between the spouses in 400 of those marriages would constitute a sex crime if the pair were not married. It added that more than 100 of the marriages since 2010 featured a minor marrying an adult at least a decade older than them.
The organization also provided a top-10 list of counties where the most child marriages have occurred over the past six years, and it reads like the list of the 10 most populous Florida counties with Jacksonville’s Duval County being the lone exception.
The list accounts for about half of the 3,000-marriages cited by the group since 2010.
Tahirih’s Tuesday statement follows their recent report, “Falling Through the Cracks: How Laws Allow Child Marriage to Happen in Today’s America.”
In addition to providing legislative guidance for ending child marriage, the report includes eye-opening data on the practice’s prevalence in the United States: only three states have outlawed the child marriage, while half of the states have no minimum marriage age on the books, and in eight states plus D.C. a clerk can approve a child marriage without the input of a judge.