WREN Testimony in Support of S.591
by WREN Staff on Apr 28, 2021
Presented by Ann Warner on April 28, 2021 to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee
Thank you, Chairwoman Senn, and Subcommittee members, for giving me an opportunity to speak today on S. 591. My name is Ann Warner, and I am the CEO of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN). WREN’s mission is to build a movement to advance the health, economic well-being, and rights of women, girls, and their families in South Carolina.
I offer this testimony based on my role and experience with WREN here in South Carolina, and also on a decade of experience researching child marriage – its causes, consequences, and solutions – in countries all over the world, from India to Kenya to Liberia.
I am here to speak in support of S.591, which would raise the legal age of marriage in South Carolina to 18. In the last decade, more than 1,100 children in South Carolina have been married – 88% of these married children were girls, who were married to older men.1 There are significant power differentials in a legal marital contract between a minor girl and an adult male, which often often lead to coercion, exploitation, and even violence.
The majority of child marriages occur at the ages of 16 or 17. Statistically, 16 or 17 year old girls are among the most vulnerable people in our society to intimate partner violence. An early marriage can isolate a girl and subject her to that risk of violence round-the-clock. These risks are especially high in South Carolina, which has chronically high levels of intimate partner violence.
However, South Carolina’s criminal sexual conduct statute treats sexual conduct within marriage differently, stating that:
“a person cannot be guilty of criminal sexual conduct … if the victim is the legal spouse unless the couple is living apart and the offending spouse’s conduct constitutes criminal sexual conduct in the first degree or second degree.” They are also required to report the crime within 30 days, whereas there is no statue of limitations on reporting if the victim is not married to the perpetrator.2
This creates a situation where married girls are more exposed to potential violence and less able to seek protection from the state.3
In addition to the threat of violence, child marriage is associated with a cascade of lifelong consequences that affect the individuals in the marriage, as well as their families and communities. According to experts at the Tahirih Justice Center4 and the International Center for Research on Women5, women who marry as girls face a range of health, economic, and social impacts, including:
- Higher rates of school drop-out – girls married as children are 50% more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college.
- High rates of teen pregnancy – girls married as teens have more children, earlier, and more closely spaced – making pregnancy more dangerous for the moms and babies.
- High divorce rates (up to 80%)
- Increased risk of poverty – up to 31% greater likelihood – and teen mothers who marry and later divorce can face more than double the likelihood of future poverty.
- More physical and mental health problems – Women (but not men) who were married before 19 have a 23% increased risk of having diabetes or cancer, or suffering from heart disease or stroke. There are also at significantly higher odds of developing psychiatric disorders: women who married before age 18 had a 43% increased risk of developing major depressive disorder, the most prevalent disorder, and were almost three times as likely to develop antisocial personality disorder in their lifetime.
A growing number of states have adopted laws to raise the minimum age of marriage. Four states6 have set the age floor at 18, and 7 states7 also limit marriage to legal adults. Many more states are considering additional reforms to raise the age of marriage.8
A minimum marriage age of 18, without exceptions, is the strongest, simplest and most effective way to stop child marriage and its harmful consequences. Increasing the age of marriage will help to protect young people from abuse and exploitation and give them a much stronger start in adulthood.
Raising the legal age of marriage is one important way to reduce the likelihood that children will be exposed to violence or exploitation. It is not sufficient though. We also need to invest in the comprehensive well-being of young people to help them make a healthy transition to adulthood. Young people need and deserve a quality education — which should include sexuality education and education on consent and intimate partner violence. They need access to health care – which should include reproductive health care and mental health care. Families – including teen parents – need services that will help them financially support themselves and their children. Preparing girls and all young people for a healthy and empowered adulthood is one of the best investments our society can make.
By passing S.591, South Carolina will take another important step to protect the well-being of children and give them the best start they can on a healthy and empowered adulthood.
Thank you for your time and consideration.