Child marriage ban in West Virginia is not over

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Mar. 18—FAIRMONT — Although she did not realize it until she entered her teens, Fraidy Reiss had her entire life planned for her from birth.

It was simple — submit to God and live a life having children and keeping house. This was her life as a member of an ultra Orthodox Jewish community in New York City's borough of Brooklyn.

"I was groomed, basically from infancy, to become a wife and a mother," she said. "I attended an all-girls religious school where I received a limited education that focused on God and cooking and sewing. I actually had to sign a paper when I was in high school promising not to take driver's education or college entrance exams."

She was never given a choice of whether or when to marry. After high school, at the age of 19, she and her "match" were allowed to go on a limited number of supervised dates in which any form of physical contact was prohibited.

"So, I was the coolest teenage virgin who had never before been allowed to talk to a boy and I was given a matter of hours, over a period of a few weeks, to answer my family and the matchmaker and everyone standing there, watching me tapping their feet waiting for me to decide. No was never really an option," Reiss said.

After the wedding, she discovered her new husband was violent. She cowered in silence the first time he punched his fist through a wall "in a blind rage only one week after our wedding."

It took years to finally get divorced and break free from the marriage she characterizes as a prison. In 2011, Reiss founded the nonprofit Unchained at Last where she and a small staff are working to convince the nation's 50 state legislatures to ban child marriage. The nonprofit's goal is for states to make the legal age of marriage 18 with no exceptions.

"To me, my forced marriage very much felt like chains around me. I was trapped, and this is very typical of those in a forced marriage — they're trapped, they're silenced and for me, my escape felt very much like I was unchained even though I paid a steep price. My family retaliated by declaring me dead and shunning me," Reiss said.

Since 2018, Reiss and her staff have had success with 7 states that raised the marriage age to 18 with no exceptions. While Unchained at Last is focused on getting the marriage age changed in Connecticut and Vermont this year, Reiss was aware of the West Virginia bill. The West Virginia bill was championed by Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha County, and Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan County. Neither Young nor Trump responded to multiple requests for interviews prior to deadline.

"I know this has been a contentious issue among a number of people," Trump said last week from the Senate floor. "My hope is this will be viewed as a reasonable and acceptable compromise and a necessary change to our law. It would bring West Virginia in line with the vast majority of states in the country."

Reiss disagreed with Trump's sentiment and said the new West Virginia law passed March 10 raising the age of marriage to 16 "isn't worth the paper on which it's printed." The bill that passed this year was the third attempt in West Virginia to make 18 the legal marriage age.

While Reiss is driven by the fact that she wants to prevent teens and young women from undergoing what she suffered in her forced marriage, she is also driven by the reality that child marriage is considered a human rights abuse by the U.S. State Department and other organizations throughout the world, such as UNICEF.

Between 2000 and 2014, 3,270 children were married in West Virginia — the equivalent of 63 of every 10,000 people were married as children, according to the Philadelphia-based Child USA.

Statistics show child marriages have a divorce rate of 70-80% and have lifelong consequences.

"It destroys girls lives and I say girls because almost all the children who marry in West Virginia and across the U.S. are girls married to adult men and these girls face devastating lifelong repercussions in terms of their health, their education, their economic opportunities, even their physical safety. They're much more likely to experience physical and sexual violence," Reiss said.

According to Reiss, raising the legal age for marriage to 16 fails to address the legal quandary involved with marriage — emancipation.

"Typically, in order to be emancipated, you have to be at least age 16 and you have to show a court that you're (financially) independent, that you can support yourself. What emancipation means is you lose your parents financial support — that's a big deal. To take away a child's parental financial support is a very big deal," Reiss said.

Like Reiss, Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion County, said he would have preferred that the original bill raising the marriage age to 18 would have passed. When the bill was brought back on the Senate floor after being killed 9-8 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is a member, the bill was amended to age 16.

"I think it will come up again," Caputo said. "This discussion is not over. I do believe we will see a bill again next year for 18 and no exceptions, but that depends on the Republican majority."

Del. Joey Garcia, R-Marion County, characterized the new law as one of the most important bills passed by the 2023 West Virginia Legislature because fewer people will now be at risk.

"I would have preferred 18, but this is a compromise that takes care of 90% of the situations where someone gets put at risk," Garcia said.

He said prior to the new law being passed, children as young as 12 could get married with parental consent and a judge's consent. Garcia said lawmakers fielded a lot of emails and calls asking for the age to be raised to 18 as a result of Del. Young's leadership.

According to Reiss, getting a bill passed takes a lot of hard work and education and future attempts to raise the age to 18 will take a groundswell of support from West Virginians.

"Getting people in West Virginia to contact their own legislator and say, 'Hey! Why is this still a thing? Why haven't you passed this bill yet?' Yes, that's crucial," Reiss said. "There's no way that we're going to pass legislation to end child marriage in West Virginia if we don't have the people of West Virginia stepping up and standing with us and insisting that the legislators in West Virginia do the right thing — make the marriage age 18, no exceptions."

Reach Eric Cravey at 304-367-2523.