By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Rep. Dan Zwonitzer is bringing back a bill that would make the minimum marriage age 18 instead of 16 in Wyoming, with few exceptions.
Close to 300,000 children were married nationwide in the last two decades, based on marriage certificate data and estimates from Unchained At Last. The study found that some were as young as 10, while the majority were girls between the ages of 16 and 17.
The Cheyenne lawmaker filed the bill for the 2023 general session after it failed to pass through the Wyoming Legislature previously. He first co-sponsored it with former Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, in 2018, and was asked to try again when it didn’t make it through the process.
Zwonitzer said he was surprised it was not supported by the majority of the governing body, but he believes it was a matter of running out of time. That’s why he filed the bill as early as possible this year, and he hopes it will go to the committee quickly.
“I’m not expecting a lot of pushback,” he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle this week.
The only concerns he could envision coming up might be related to religion. Zwonitzer said there are religious ideologies where marriage at a younger age is encouraged, and church officials or stakeholders may push back against the government interfering.
He said there has been support for the bill from organizations such as Zonta International, which advocates to end child marriage and gender-based violence.
Other national movements have also tried to set a minimum age to get married in every state, because they believe it is a state issue, not a federal one.
However, he recognized the legislation is more complex than just increasing the minimum age to legally marry from 16 to 18. It also states no person shall marry who is under the age of 16 years, and all marriages involving a person under 16 are void.
There are still exceptions that were written into statute previously, and Zwonitzer amends those in his bill. Portions of the bill replace the word “minor” with “16 or 17 years of age.”
Examples of this are in Section 1 of the legislation, which states, as drafted, “If either party is sixteen or seventeen years of age, the parents or guardians may apply to any judge of a court of record in the county of residence of the person sixteen year or seventeen years of age for an order authorizing the marriage and directing the issuance of a marriage license.”
The judge can authorize the marriage, but no marriage ceremonies in Wyoming can be performed if the party is under 16.
Zwonitzer said House Bill 7 is a start in addressing child marriage, as well as adding protections for minors.
Child marriage poses serious risks to children physically, economically, socially and mentally, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. The national nonprofit reported that women who marry before the age of 18 have a 23% greater risk of developing a serious health condition; teens tend to have more children earlier and more closely spaced; and they face intimate partner violence victimization at rates three times higher than the national average.
Young women who marry before the age of 18 are also more likely to report mental health issues.
“Social isolation and feeling a lack of control over their lives can contribute to a child bride’s poor mental health,” the nonprofit stated based on legal and social-service providers’ observations. “In fact, agencies working with girls facing or trying to escape forced marriages report that nearly all have contemplated or attempted suicide.”
Advocates also argue it undermines statutory rape laws.
Close to 60,000 marriages between 2000 and 2018 occurred at an age or spousal age difference that would have been considered a sex crime, according to a study by Unchained At Last.
Tara Muir, who is the public policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said the organization supports the bill because it could prevent the dangerous impacts of child marriage. She said this kind of bill has been going around the country, and there have been huge successes.
“We certainly don’t support child marriage at all,” she said. “But we would like more of a discussion about the reasons why young girls find themselves in these situations, and we’d like to talk more about the root causes and do something about those problems.”
Muir said there should be options for sex education in schools that discuss age appropriate and healthy relationships. She also wants to dig into the reasons a minor might agree to a marriage, such as an unhealthy environment, lack of financial stability or housing.
“We have heard from more than one survivor that underage marriage was the only way to get out of a really problematic home, because there was no one else paying attention to what was going on there,” she said.
When it comes to the aftermath of a marriage at a young age, there are many negative impacts and high divorce rates. She said based on recent data, nearly 70-80% of marriages entered when the person is under the age of 18 ultimately end in divorce.
The largest local impact she has been informed of is economic, though. Many child brides tend to come from poverty and remain in poverty, and both their work and educational opportunities are interrupted.
“Trying to improve economic opportunities for women and girls would be lovely for our state,” said Muir. “We are almost dead last, depending on which year you’re looking at and on whether we have equal pay for equal work in our state.”