California lawmaker blocking bill to ban child marriage

California was close to ending child marriage, a human rights abuse that world leaders have vowed to eliminate by year 2030 to help empower women and girls.

That was until Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, last month demanded amendments that would have gutted a bill to end the practice before he would give the legislation a hearing in the Judiciary Committee he chairs.

We refuse to accept that. We are Alyssa Milano, the actress and activist who helped launch the #MeToo movement, and Fraidy Reiss, the forced marriage survivor who founded Unchained At Last to end forced and child marriage in the United States.

The United Nations considers all marriage before age 18 to be forced marriage. Child marriage is not a “right,” it is a “human rights abuse.” International Planned Parenthood Federation calls it “one of the most persistent forms of sanctioned sexual abuse of girls.”

Yet, California is one of just four states in the nation with no minimum age for marriage. Minors of any age can be married if a judge and, in most cases, a parent or guardian approve. The bill Kalra is blocking would set a minimum age of 18 to marry. It mirrors laws in 12 U.S. states from New York to Washington.

The bill has more than 30 bipartisan legislative co-authors and support from the Legislative Women’s Caucus; dozens of groups, from the California Teachers Association to the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and child marriage survivors.

It is consistent with the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s 2023 recommendation urging every U.S. state to prohibit marriage before age 18.

None of that, apparently, is persuasive to Kalra.

California’s current laws effectively legalize the trafficking of minors. That’s because federal law does not specify a minimum age to emigrate to the United States as a spouse or fiancé nor to petition in this country for a foreign spouse or fiancé. Instead, the federal government defers to the marriage age in the state where the couple will reside.

That means a California girl of any age can legally be trafficked for her citizenship — in other words, forced to marry an adult man from overseas so he can get a U.S. visa. It also means California men can legally import child brides of any age from overseas. (Nearly all the thousands of teens trafficked in this way are girls.)

Marriage before age 18 creates a “Kafkaesque nightmare” for minors. Their limited legal rights mean they cannot easily leave home to escape parents who are planning an unwanted wedding for them; enter a domestic violence shelter; retain an attorney; bring a legal action independently; or get help from advocates like Unchained.

Child marriage gives a “get out of jail free” card to would-be child rapists, because statutory rape within marriage is not a crime. Child marriage is a harmful practice that devastates sexual and reproductive rights. And census data shows more than 8,000 minors in California are married off every year, mostly girls to adult men.

Nevertheless, Kalra caved to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of California and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. Unlike their counterparts in almost every other U.S. state that have supported minimum marriage ages or stayed neutral, the two California groups support child marriage.