Virginia Becomes the First State in the South to End Child Marriage

Virginia’s bill to end child marriage was introduced by chief patron Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra, a former school board member. (Alastair Pike / AFP via Getty Images)

Virginia became the 12th U.S. state and first in the South to end child marriage last week, after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed HB 994 into law. The law completely ends child marriage in the state by establishing a minimum marriage age of 18 without exceptions and removes a legal loophole that previously allowed emancipated minors to marry in Virginia. The law will go into effect on July 1, 2024.

The bill was carried by state Delegate Karen Keys-Gamarra (D) after an initial request from myself—both of us women from Fairfax County. This law will protect children from the abuse and exploitation that can occur under the guise of marriage and the lifelong harm that often results from marrying underage, no matter the circumstances. We hope to see the remaining 38 states follow suit.

Virginia led the effort to end child marriage in 2016 when then-Delegate, now-U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan and state Sen. Jill Vogel carried HB 703/SB 415. The bill attempted to end marriage before 18, but it allowed a minor to be entered into marriage at age 16 if a judge approved and emancipated the minor as part of the process (or they were already emancipated), which did not protect 16- and 17-year-olds.

Some 7,876 minors as young as 12 were entered into marriage in Virginia between 2000 and 2021, according to research from the organization Unchained at Last. At least 65 of those minors were married since the current law went into effect in 2016, and more than 80 percent were married to adult men. Almost all of the marriages since 2000 involved a minor who was not old enough to consent to sex with their spouse, otherwise making this statutory rape.

Child marriage has been shown to result in increased risk of future poverty, particularly for teen moms, as well as greater vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, coercive control, financial abuse, homelessness and mental illness. Child marriage victims experience increased high school dropout rates and divorce rates are upwards of 80 percent.

By building a coalition and working with women’s and human rights groups, we made our case that this human rights abuse trapping vulnerable young girls and impacting their access to education and social services must end. We could not have achieved this success without sisterhood and support from Zonta USA, Unchained At Last, Tahirih Justice Center, Equality Now, UltraViolet, the AHA Foundation, Virginia National Organization for Women members and child marriage survivors who all helped make this victory possible by testifying, contacting lawmakers, sharing posts on social media and informing others about the harmful effects of child marriage. We are grateful to the bipartisan group of legislators who ensured its passage in both chambers.

Virginia is also the fifth state to end child marriage in just the last two years and joins Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Michigan and Washington—reflecting growing momentum across the nation.

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Lisa Sales is the president of Virginia National Organization for Women (NOW), the former Chair of the Fairfax County (Va.) Commission for Women and serves on the policy committee for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance—because as a survivor of sexual assault, she learned there is a nexus between women’s lack of recognized equality in America and the violence they experience. Virginia is the 38th historic state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.