Child marriages are no longer permitted in Washington state after a new law took effect June 6th.

The Washington legislature passed a bill ending the practice during the 2024 session and Gov. Inslee signed it into law in March.

To legally marry in Washington, both individuals must be 18 or older.  Similar efforts establishing the minimum have stalled in previous session in Olympia.

Washington is the 11th state to establish a minimum age standard at 18 for nuptials.

Prior to the bills passage, the minimum age for marriage in Washington state was 17 with a parent's consent, and even younger if a judge signed off.  Washington had been among five states with no established minimum age for legal marriage.

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An advocacy group Unchained At Last working to end child marriage organized a protest in Olympia during the legislative session to call attention to their concerns about Washington's lack of child marriage law minimum requirements.

Unchained At Last protest in Olympia
Unchained At Last protest in Olympia

Two minors marrying each other may have been more common in the past but the issue getting the attention of lawmakers and a national child advocacy group is the practice of adults marrying children.

An Unchained at Last study found that from 2000 to 2021, more than 5,000 minors were married in Washington. The same study showed the vast majority of recent child marriages – 83% – in Washington are those between adult men and underage girls.

Unchained At Last argues for a minimum age standard of 18 for marriage.  The organization says child marriage, or marriage before age 18, was legal in all 50 U.S. states as recently as 2017 and is still legal in 39 states.  It claims research has revealed that nearly 300,000 children as young as 10 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018 – mostly girls wed to adult men.

The group says someone under age 18 is not a legal adult with limited rights.  As children without the rights of an adult, they could be forced into or to stay in an arranged marriage. As minors, they need help from an advocate, to enter a domestic violence shelter or retain an attorney to end a marriage.  They may not be allowed to begin legal proceedings, seek protective orders or even file for protective orders because of their minor status.

The Seattle Times reports Washington 18-year-olds have access to support systems that may be inaccessible to minors. Domestic violence shelters could turn away minors.

The group is campaigning around the country on the negative impacts to the health, education and economic opportunities for child brides who were married before age 18.

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