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This article originally appeared in NPR's VPM on February 5, 2024

VPM | By Ben Paviour
Published February 5, 2024 at 3:15 PM EST

Backers of the legislation say emancipated minors can be coerced into predatory marriages.

When Judy Wiegand was 13 years old, she got married in a church in Clintwood — near the Kentucky border. She felt she didn’t have a choice; it was the expectation for pregnant women in her community. At the time — around 40 years ago — it was legal in Virginia for an underage and pregnant teenager to get married with parental consent.

In an interview last week, she said she wasn’t compatible with her husband, who allegedly became violent, but because of Kentucky law couldn’t divorce him until she turned 18. Wiegand said she doesn’t blame her family or community for what happened.

“I blame the legal bodies that were supposed to protect me and did not,” said Wiegand, who went on to get a doctorate in physical therapy and now specializes in working with youth.

Wiegand is now part of an effort to tighten Virginia’s laws to ban all underage marriage. While that’s already largely the case after a series of bipartisan reforms passed in 2016, the current law carves out an exception for emancipated minors between the ages of 16 and 18.

Legislation from Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra (D–Fairfax) would end that exemption. On Feb. 2, the full Courts of Justice committee voted to send it back to a subcommittee that had previously voted in favor of the bill.

Subcommittee chair Del. Marcus Simon (D–Fairfax) said last week he’d heard a member of Democratic caucus leadership had concerns that the bill needed more work. Simon said he wasn’t sure who the person was or what they wanted to change.

“Sometimes, these things just happen on the fly,” Simon said.

Neither Keys-Gamarra nor the spokesperson for the House Democratic caucus responded to emails seeking clarity.

In the subcommittee meeting last week, Keys-Gamarra said the change would bring the commonwealth into alignment with international norms established by groups like the United Nations, which seeks to end child marriages by 2030.

Keys-Gamarra’s bill is backed by a range of advocacy groups, including the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women, Equality Now, Zonta USA, Tahirih Justice Center, Unchained at Last and Ultraviolet.

I could not hire an attorney or enter into a lease, because I was a minor. I couldn't even drive, because I wasn't old enough, and he controlled my entire life.
–Sara, who said she was married at 16 to a 29-year-old

At the meeting, representatives from those groups shared first- and secondhand accounts of child marriages they said involved abuse and coercion.

Aliya Abbas, a self-described child marriage survivor, said she was forced into a marriage with a stranger when she was 17, and alleged she was raped repeatedly and threatened with death when she sought a divorce.

“This emancipation loophole does not save children who are going to be coerced into this human rights abuse,” Abbas said.

Another woman, who identified herself only as Sara, said she was married at 16 to a man 13 years her senior after she became pregnant. She also described being raped and abused.

“I could not escape to a domestic violence shelter, because I was a minor,” Sara said. “I could not hire an attorney or enter into a lease, because I was a minor. I couldn't even drive, because I wasn't old enough, and he controlled my entire life.”

Before the General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 that then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law, Virginia allowed marriages for youth under 16 if the relationship involved a pregnancy and the parents of anyone underage consented. Marriages were also allowed from age 16-18 with parental consent.

The 2016 legislation allowed people between the ages of 16 and 18 to petition the court for emancipation provided a judge found that is “in the best interests of the minor to be emancipated.”

The judge must determine that the underage person is making the decision freely, is “mature enough to make a decision to marry” and wouldn’t have their safety jeopardized by the marriage.

Joshua Hetzler, legislative counsel for The Family Foundation, said the current process has sufficient safeguards and emancipated minors should be treated as adults.

“If somebody is deemed to be a legal adult, and otherwise has all the rights of an adult, and of course, they should have the right to marry as well,” Hetzler said. “Many of us have grandparents where it was common to get married at 16 or 17. And many of them are still married today.”

That logic irked Wiegand, who said women in that era “were basically told what to do.”

“This isn't about entering into a marriage that is a loving, consenting marriage,” Wiegand said.

It’s unclear how many people in Virginia might be impacted by the change. The advocacy group Unchained at Last estimated nearly 8,000 underage people in Virginia were married between 2000 and 2018.