RALEIGH (N.C.) North Carolina is well-known for its mountains, coastlines and state that was the first to fly. However, North Carolina has recently been criticized for being a region for people who wish to marry children.
A bill is being considered by state lawmakers and could be passed in the near future. It would reduce the state's popularity as a place where child brides can be brought, but it would not stop the nation from pushing to raise the minimum age to 18. The legislation proposed would increase the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16, and reduce the age gap between a 16-year old and their spouse to only four years.
Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County's register of deeds, stated that we will have moved the needle and put North Carolina at the top of the list of states. He said that they were still going to put a lot more children in danger.
Reisinger stated that the county includes Asheville, a popular tourist destination, and is a destination for both adult and child brides from neighboring states like Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina, all of whom have recently raised the minimum age of marriage.
Reisinger stated that two-thirds of marriage applications in Buncombe county last year were filed from nonresidents who sought to marry an underage individual. He also noted that a 17-year old girl and a man aged 49 came from Kentucky recently seeking a license.
He noted that North Carolina is one the most friendly states in the South, and provides safe haven for them.
According to Unchained At Last, a non-profit organization that promotes ending forced and child marriages in America, this state is one of 13 states that allows children under 16 years old to marry.
Current North Carolina law allows children as young 14 to marry if they are pregnant or if a judge permits it. Children can marry as young as 16 years old with parental consent. Alaska is the only state that allows children to marry as young as 14.
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The International Center for Research on Women (a research institute and rights group for women, children and families) found that North Carolina had nearly 8,800 minors listed on its marriage licenses between 2000 and 2015. This puts the state in the top five states with child marriages over that time period. According to the group, 93% of marriage applications that it reviewed between 2000 and 2019 involved a marriage between a child and an adult.
This discredits the idea that child marriage can occur, which is the Romeo and Juliet scenario of two 17 year-olds who are eager to be loved by each other. Lyric Thompson, one co-author of the study, stated.
However, North Carolina lawmakers have been slow to change their minds. Some legislators still believe that marriages with children are acceptable.
It's a generational divide said Sen. Vickie Seeyer, a Davidson County Republican. Both Republicans and Democrats were older and had personal stories about family members who were married. It turned out to be OK.
Sawyer sponsored a bill to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 years. A compromise bill that sawyer sponsored would have raised the age to 18 but was rejected by the Senate and House. It will now raise the minimum age for marriage to 16, with no exceptions. Even those aged 16-17 would need parental consent or a judge's decision that the marriage would be in the "best interest of an underage person."
Cabarrus County Representative Kristin Baker, who helped to shepherd the bill through Congress, said that she is a conservative Christian and a strong supporter for the sacrament marriage.
She said that as a child psychiatrist, my goal is to protect vulnerable youth and increase their chances of a healthy, happy future. "I believe that this bill will achieve these ends.
The proposed maximum age gap of 4 years was partially based on statutory rape laws, which make it a serious crime for a minor having sexual intercourse with an older person. Before it can be sent to the Democratic Governor, the legislation must pass one more Senate vote. It will be signed by Roy Cooper at his desk this week, most likely.
Unchained at Last, and the International Center for Research on Women are two groups that push states to raise the age of marriage to 18. New York was the latest to reach this standard. Six states are currently in that position.
These groups have sought the assistance of ex-child brides, including Judy Wiegand from Kentucky. She appeared before a North Carolina House Committee in June to urge legislators to amend the law.
Wiegand stated that it is the government's responsibility to ensure the safety of all children. Wiegand was just 13 years old when she married the older, teenage boy who would become her husband. This was in the 1970s. She stated that she was not protected against abusive spouses until she was an adult.
Lobbyists working to change the law claim that former child brides in North Carolina who they have spoken with are too traumatized from their experiences to talk before legislators publicly. Wiegand said that Wiegand has stepped in to speak for the bill, "I am speaking in support of it because I feel no one did it for me."
Jean Fields is another woman who spoke out. Jean was 15 when she married a man in her 20s in 1965. Fields was 21 when she had her three children. After years of verbal abuse and humiliation from her husband, Fields ended up divorcing.
Fields, 72, is now married to another name, but she doesn't want to reveal it for the sake of her extended family. She said that she had left her marriage to raise her children and then returned to school. Since then, she has owned two businesses. Despite her success, she discourages others to marry young.
She said, "I regret that I didn't have the chance to be a teenager."