Women in white dresses and veils, some clutching teddy bears, placed chains around their wrists and tape over their mouths as they stood on the State House steps Thursday afternoon to call attention to a bill aiming to end child marriage in Massachusetts.
Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a group that helps women and girls leave forced or arranged marriages, said current Massachusetts law allows girls under the age of 18 to get married, but minors cannot always access the legal and social services they would need to end a marriage.
"What we have found is that we can typically help women age 18 or over who are facing a first marriage or already in one to escape, but when it comes to the girls under age 18, we're almost never able to help because of the way the laws are set up," Reiss told the News Service. "We've had terrible, terrible outcomes and enough heartbreaking stories that we realized we need to change these laws."
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Unchained at Last is backing bills filed by Rep. Kay Khan of Newton and Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester (H 2310, S 785) that would prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from getting married in Massachusetts.
Reiss said that between 2000 to 2014, almost 1,190 children, including some as young as 14, were married in Massachusetts, primarily girls wedding adult men. She said there is no minimum age for marriage in the state as long as a judge approves.
Maria Mossaides, the state's child advocate, said her office has endorsed the legislation because current practices "really do not provide protection, enough protection, for the young women that we are talking about."
"They are allowed to be married with very limited judicial inquiry as to whether the marriage is in the best interest of this young woman, primarily young women, and then once they become married they become ineligible for a bunch of supports, including the ability to enter an adult shelter without permission," said Mossaides, who wore a short white veil and chains around her wrists like the demonstrators.
Reiss, who said her family forced her into a marriage when she was 19, said her organization hopes to end the practice of child marriage throughout the country and is advocating on behalf of bills in multiple states.
A similar bill has passed both branches of the New Jersey Legislature and is now on Gov. Chris Christie's desk, Reiss said.
The Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Khan and Chandler's bills on Monday.