Protesters from the nonprofit Unchained At Last hold a demonstration to demand an end to forced and child marriage in the U.S. Matilde Simas, Capture Humanity.

Connecticut really stands out from its neighboring states right now… in a most shameful way.

While New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and others have banned child marriage in the last few years, this relic from a sexist past remains legal, and happening at an alarming rate in the Constitution State.

Fraidy Reiss

And since Connecticut does not impose a residency requirement for marriage, it might soon earn a new nickname: the Child Marriage State. Parents from nearby states can easily bring their children here to subject them to what the United States calls a “human rights abuse.”

Unchained At Last and its allies are determined to change that. Unchained is a nonprofit I founded in 2011 after I escaped from an abusive forced marriage to help others across the U.S., including in Connecticut, to escape forced marriages, and to push for social, policy and legal reform. Unchained has partnered with bipartisan legislators and allies across the state to build support for HB6569, a bill the judiciary committee has raised to end child marriage.

For a long time, Connecticut law did not specify any minimum age for marriage. In 2017, legislators banned marriage for those age 15 or younger, but they still failed to protect 16- and 17-year-olds. The bill they passed in 2017 was a good first step but did not go nearly far enough, considering that 95 percent of the minors who wed before 2017 were age 16 or 17, according to data from the Connecticut Department of Public Health as analyzed by Unchained.

Indeed, 1,246 minors, some as young as 14, were entered into marriage in Connecticut between 2000 and 2020 – including 24 minors just between October 1, 2017, when the new law went into effect, and December 31, 2020. Most were girls wed to adult men an average of 4.46 years older.

Sure, 16- and 17-year-olds are “almost 18,” as we hear all the time. But even the most mature teen, even a day before their 18th birthday, does not have the full rights of adulthood. Therefore, marriage before age 18 creates a nightmarish legal trap.

A 16- or 17-year-old typically cannot enter a marriage independently. One of their parents and a judge can enter them into marriage, with no real recourse for a teen whose own parent is forcing them to marry. And the perpetrators of a forced marriage are almost always the parents, Unchained has found.

A 16- or 17-year-old who tries to escape from parents who are planning an unwanted wedding for them can be dragged back home by a police officer. It is unclear whether a married teen has the right to leave home to escape from an abusive spouse.

Not that such a teen would have anywhere to go. Domestic violence shelters routinely turn away unaccompanied minors, in Unchained’s experience.

An adult in this terrifying situation might retain an attorney to help figure out their rights. But contracts with minors, including attorney retainer agreements, typically are voidable. Also, minors typically cannot bring a legal action in their own name, which creates additional, overwhelming obstacles.

When girls reach out to Unchained to beg for help escaping a forced marriage and learn of their limited options, many turn to suicide attempts and self harm. Death seems like the only way out.

Whether or not it is forced, marriage before age 18 destroys almost every aspect of an American girl’s life, including her health, education and economic opportunities and even her physical safety.

This explains why U.S. states, including Connecticut’s neighbors, are passing legislation like HB6569 to keep the marriage age at 18 but eliminate the dangerous loopholes that allow minors to be entered into marriage before they are old enough to enter into almost any other contract. This commonsense, nonpartisan legislation harms no one, costs nothing and ends a human rights abuse.

Countries around the world are also banning child marriage, because, under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, 193 countries including the U.S. vowed to eliminate the “harmful practice” of child marriage by year 2030.

Connecticut must not be left behind. Please join Unchained in standing up for girls by contacting your state legislators and urging them to prioritize HB6569 this session.

Fraidy Reiss is a forced marriage survivor turned activist who founded and serves as executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that works to end forced and child marriage in the U.S. through direct services and advocacy.