Bill aims to put an end to ‘child marriages’ in Minnesota

Kaohly Her was a teenager when an older man caught a glimpse of her at a community event. The next day, his family called her father to ask for her hand in marriage.

"I remember hearing my father say to the caller that he would only entertain the thought of us marrying after I graduated from college," Her said.

She did go to college, hours from her home, where she met a different man who became her husband. She got a degree in finance and last fall she ran for and won a seat in the Minnesota House. None of that would have happened if her father agreed to the man's marriage proposal, she said.

Now, Her, a St. Paul Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would bar marriage by any minor in the state of Minnesota and require a proof of age. Under state law now 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental consent and approval from a judge in the county where they live. Her's proposal to change that was approved unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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"We cannot let a practice that reduces a girl's chance of success, happiness, security, and safety continue," she said. "We are the adults who know better, so we should protect our children."

There's no data collected on these marriages in Minnesota, so there's no information on how widespread the problem is, but it's a fairly common practice in the United States. Between 2000 and 2015, more 200,000 minors were legally married in the United States, according to a Frontline investigation. Nine in 10 of those minors were girls, and in many cases, they were married to men so much older that the age difference would usually constitute statutory rape, Her said.

In Minnesota, a child's parents or legal guardian must petition the courts in order for a minor to be married. Ashlynn Kendzior, an attorney with the group Gender Justice, said judges are given wide discretion and usually grant the marriage licences.

Kendzior supports Her's bill, in part, because the status of marriage changes how prosecutors can carry out sexual misconduct laws in the state. Minnesota has what are called "marital rape exceptions" in law, which prevent someone from being convicted of raping their spouses.

"Under Minnesota law, it is illegal to have sex with a 16-or 17-year-old child if you are more than four years older than that child and in a position of authority, however, that very same conduct is legal if the victim and the perpetrator are married," she said. "Even if the rape or other misconduct occurred prior to the marriage, most prosecutors will decline to prosecute because the marriage is seen as taking precedent."

Last year, two states passed laws that bar minors from getting married. Before changing its law, Florida allowed minor girls of any age to marry if they were pregnant.

"I know many people when they hear child marriage, they think it's a third world country problem, but I know many immigrant communities, and many mainstream communities, this is a problem," Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

The bill now heads for a vote in the House. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is carrying a companion bill.