Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill designed to eradicate child marriages within the state. SB 1705, which will go into effect on September 1, introduces a minimum age for marriage in the state of Texas and raises the age of marriage with parental consent. Prior to this, children 14 and older were allowed to marry in the state with consent of a parent, and — given a judge’s consent — children of any age could marry.
This surprising shift represents a remarkable, positive change for a state that is so often steeped in social conservatism and backwardness. In spite of these strides however, the necessity of this law reflects systematized gender inequalities and cultural divides that will not be eliminated by its passage.
Prior to the passage of this legislation, Texas law facilitated the antiquated tradition of child marriage. Defenders of these laws pointed to religious freedom and teen pregnancy as a reason for keeping them. Such arguments are misleading, as the legality of underage marriage is directly harmful to children and women in the state.
More than 90 percent of such marriages involve underage girls marrying adult men. Most of these adults would be subject to statutory rape prosecution for the same relationship ordained by Texas law. And yet, such relationships were for decades preferable to a teen pregnancy or prosecuting a man for statutory rape.
Women who marry underage are more than three times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. More than two thirds of underage marriages end in divorce. Many of these marriages are attempts to subvert statutory rape or molestation charges. A child too young to legally consent to have sex with an adult could marry him in the state of Texas.
In signing this legislation, Texas — which has the record for largest number of child marriages in total — joins only 24 other states that have enacted minimum ages for marriage, below which no judge of parent can consent to the arrangement. Of the 24 states that have minimum ages, 9 of them merely require children be 15 or older. Only two states require a child to be 17 or older, and only this year was underage marriage made illegal in a single state. On July 1, Virginia will become the first of the United States to ban child marriage altogether.
The passage of this law marks a heartening change for the Texas legislature, however, the prevalence of this issue throughout the country and the remaining ambiguity in the state law allows for significant room for improvement. Culturally backward gender roles underlie the widespread support of such laws and highlight the problems they cause. Tens of thousands of Texas women were bound in underage marriages at the time of its passage. These marriages aren’t going anywhere, and no additional support structure exists to help women trapped in these abusive or coerced marriages.
For decades, Texas has chosen child marriages over dealing with teen pregnancy and has hidden behind the facade of religious freedom in the name of protecting inherently unequal gender hierarchies. While the legislature has demonstrated commitment to eliminating this social ill, it must follow-through and target the source of it. Texas must educate children about sexual health so they aren’t forced into marriage by an unexpected pregnancy. The courts must prosecute rape and molestation and prioritize institutional inequalities.
This is progress, but there remains a ways to go.
Liza is a Plan II and history major from Houston.