Members of Unchained At Last gathered June 2, 2023 at the Connecticut State Capitol to urge the Senate to pass House Bill 6569 and end child marriage. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

Hours after a group of advocates dressed in wedding dresses, with chains around their wrists and tape over their mouth, gathered outside the Capitol Friday morning to urge state lawmakers to pass a bill that would ban child marriages, the Senate unanimously approved the measure.

“I stand in support of this very important piece of legislation that also impacts my family greatly,” said Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport. “My eldest sister was married to a gentleman who was 50 years old only when she was 17 years of age in the beautiful island of St. Lucia. I’ve seen the devastating impact it had on her physically and how it deprived her of her innocence and of her childhood. She bore five children from this marriage and eventually had to flee from the island of St. Lucia and move down to Florida to get away from her abuser.”

Current state statute allows children 16 and older to get married. However, House Bill 6569, which passed out of the House 98-45 in early May and now awaits final approval from Gov. Ned Lamont, would raise the legal age to marry to 18 without exceptions. 

Like Gaston, other lawmakers argued that child marriages trap teenagers in a legally binding contract they’re unable to get out of and often can lead to abuse. 

Hundreds of thousands of children have been forced into marriages, often arranged by their parents, before they were 18 in the United States.

Between 2000 and 2018, over 300,000 children were married across the country. In Connecticut alone, from 2000 to 2021, over 1,200 children were under the age of 18 when they wedded, according to data from the organization Unchained At Last, which advocates to end forced and child marriages across the country.

“Connecticut is better than this. We are more progressive than this,” said Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, who also serves as the chair of the state’s Trafficking in Persons Council, at the late morning protest Friday.  “We need to join surrounding states that have already made the age of marriage 18, otherwise we can become a destination state for child marriage in New England.”

At the protest, a handful of Unchained At Last members, held black signs reading “CT ALLOWS FORCED MARRIAGE OF MINORS,” “300,000 CHILDREN WED IN US 2000-2018” and “MINORS CANT REFUSE MARRIAGE #wedLOCK”.

“What studies show is that marriage before 18 destroys almost every aspect of an American girl’s life — her health, her education, her economic opportunities, even her physical safety,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained At Last. “Before 18, it makes it much more likely that she will experience physical and sexual violence within that marriage, be forced to endure pregnancy, childbirth and child bearing without her consent.”

Reiss said she was forced into marriage when she was 19, which inspired her nonprofit. She added that common reasons for the marriage arrangements include, pregnancy, access to immigration status, sex trafficking and financial stability. 

“What we see again and again are several devastating commonalities. One is that in almost all the cases, when a child or an adult is forced to marry, we have seen the primary facilitators are not some strangers, it’s almost always their own parent — which adds to the trauma because there’s a betrayal — but also, it makes escape that much more difficult,” Reiss said. “Because they’re still minors, they have limited legal rights. They can’t leave home. If [our organization] helps them leave, we can face criminal charges. They can’t retain an attorney. They can’t even bring a legal action in their own name. They’re just sitting ducks.”

If signed by Lamont, Connecticut would be the ninth state to ban marriages under the age of 18. 

“Every one of Connecticut’s neighbors already has banned child marriage in the last few years. Vermont was just a few weeks ago, but even just the contiguous states — New York, Massachusstts, Rhode Island — all have marriage age of 18 with no exceptions,” Reiss said. “Connecticut is lagging behind, and Connecticut does not impose a resident requirement for marriage, which means, guess where parents in [all those states] are now taking their kids to marry them up?”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.