Thursday, June 13, 2024
Legislative Coverage

Survivors speak out against child marriage

"We're here to remind people that girls matter"

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OLYMPIA - Twenty women sporting wedding gowns and lustrous veils, with chains around their wrists and tape over their mouths, gathered in protest of Washington State law that allows children to be married if they have permission from their parents.

A bill now being debated in the state Legislature, HB 1455, would end child marriage in Washington State.

Between 2000 and 2021, 5,048 children were married in Washington, and 83% of these involved girls wed to adult men, according to a study by Unchained At Last, an organization that pushes for social and legal change. Most of these girls were aged 16-17, but some were as young as 13.

Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained At Last, established the organization in 2011 after escaping her forced marriage. Reiss was coerced into a violent marriage with a stranger and forced to bear two children. When she finally escaped, her family retaliated, and the community shunned her. 

Kate Yang was forced into a marriage when she was 12. For Sara Tasneem, it was 15. Fraidy Ross was 19 and trapped in an abusive marriage for 15 years.

"They declared me dead,” Reiss said. “More than a decade later, they still consider me dead. That's why I founded Unchained At Last, to end forced and child marriage in the United States." 

"I am a survivor, not a victim," Reiss said. "I was born in a very fundamentalist religious cult where that [forced marriage] is the norm."

Women who are forced to marry often come from cultural communities where arranged marriages are common. Child brides often are tightly controlled by an abusive husband. Without bank accounts, credit cards, or even a driver's license, escape is nearly impossible.

"I really just wanted to be free,” Yang said. “I did not want to be physically abused every day. I did not want to be raped. I called the police for the first time after a bad beating, and I left. A year ago, I decided to share my story. I found my voice.”

Yang, married in middle school and was restricted from having friends outside the Hmong community. At 22, Yang had two sons, aged five and eight. Now divorced for 14 years with a restraining order against her ex-husband, she still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. 

"I kept myself in a bubble because that was the only way to survive. If I were to sit around and rehash my past every day, it would lead me to suicide," Yang said.

Yang no longer has a relationship with her parents or with the Hmong community. 

Tasneem was forced into a child marriage with a 28-year-old man. 

"My dad forced me to marry to control my sexuality," Tasneem said. “I was introduced to a man one morning, then I was forced to marry him that same night in a spiritual marriage. He started raping me from that night on.”

Tasmeen was showing a baby bump when she showed up in court to get a marriage certificate at 16 years old.

“I was visibly pregnant,” Tasmeen said. “That was evidence of the rape that was happening, and instead of entering my abuser into jail, they put the handcuffs on me, and that’s why we are here with chains on our hands because minors who enter into a marriage are basically entering them into a prison sentence because we cannot leave.” 

Tasmeen, after a seven-year effort, left her marriage, bringing her two children. She is set to provide in-person testimony for the bill on Jan 31.

Reiss said no one has come forward to oppose the child marriage ban for religious or other grounds. She said she believes that ending child marriage aligns with modern religious views. 

“Legislators are not accustomed to prioritizing girls' issues," Reiss said. “We're here to remind people that girls matter."

Rep. Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver) presented HB 1455 in 2023, gaining unanimous approval in the House. On the opening day of this session, the bill passed with a 98-0 vote through the House and is now in the Senate. 

"Child marriages do not last and shouldn't exist," Stonier said in a press release. "If there are problems in the marriage, they can't file for divorce because they're not legally an adult. They can't seek a protection order, either."

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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