INDIANAPOLIS – A House committee voted 9-1 Monday to make it much more difficult for underage Hoosiers to marry – an attempt to curtail forced marriage in the state.
Generally, it would require a person be 18 to marry. But it does allow a 17-year-old to marry if the intended spouse is not more than four years older than the person and a juvenile judge has issued an order allowing it. That is the only exception.
Under current law a 17-year-old can get married without court involvement as long as a parent consents. And someone as young as 15 can get married if they are pregnant.
“The reason so many states are responding so quickly is not just the threat of forced marriage but the severe harm that can befall women who simply marry too young,” said Jeanne Smoot, policy director for the Tahirih Justice Center, an entity that helps those fleeing domestic violence and human trafficking.
Smoot said marrying under the age of 18 doubles the likelihood of being in poverty, creates a higher prevalence of teen pregnancies and increases school dropout rates.
“You don't want Indiana to become a new destination for exploitation,” she said, noting several adjoining states have passed similar safeguards.
According to the Indiana State Department of Health, 95 Hoosiers between the age of 15 and 17 got married in 2018. It has stayed consistently close to that number for a few years but was as high as 142 in 2014.
Rep. Karen Engleman, R-Georgetown, said the purpose of the legislation is to make sure both people in a marriage are on equal footing.
“It's a red flag if a girl is raped – not a reason to green-light a marriage,” she said. “This is to make sure she is making a decision of her own free will and is able to leave if there is abuse.”
Donna Pollard testified about marrying a 30-year-old when she was 16 – with her mother's consent. Her mother herself was a child bride at age 13. Pollard was from Kentucky, but her husband was from Indiana and that's where they lived. She dropped out of school, became pregnant and struggled to get away from the abusive relationship largely due to her age.
“I was in no position to take care of a baby because I was just a kid myself,” she said.
House Bill 1418 now moves to the full House.